Israel’s Tamar gas field off the Mediterranean coast. The country's economic dominance is making other players like Turkey anxious Image Credit: AP

Merely one month after the Israel Leviathan gasfield began pumping gas for the first time, an explosion in a pipeline that pumps Israeli gas to Egypt brought the operations to a temporary halt.

The attack on the pipeline in the northern Egypt Sinai Peninsula on February 2 was a microcosm of a much wider conflict that has been brewing for months, which is likely to escalate into an unprecedented regional power-play.

It all started with massive natural gas discoveries off the eastern coast of Israel and Palestine. Considering that Israel has robbed Palestinians of their land, it is no surprise that Palestinians are denied access to their very own natural resources.

Israel is diversifying beyond exerting regional economic dominance, to becoming a major player on the international geopolitical stage as well. The EastMed pipeline project, estimated at €6 billion (Dh23.87 billion), is expected to cover 10 per cent of Europe’s overall need for natural gas

- Ramzy Baroud

Now, Israel is working to translate the massive new discoveries to make Tel Aviv a regional energy hub.

The Middle East is already in the throes of a major geostrategic war that has the potential to become an actual military confrontation. Israel’s new gas wealth promises to be a major aspect of the region’s already existing conflicts.

“We turned Israel into an energy superpower,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bragged during a cabinet meeting on January 19, in reference to Israeli Leviathan gas shipments to Jordan and Egypt, the latter being temporarily disrupted in the Sinai attack.

For years, Israel has been exploiting the discovery of massive deposits of natural gas from the Leviathan and Tamar fields — located nearly 125km and 80km west of Haifa respectively — to reconstruct regional alliances and to redefine its geopolitical centrality to Europe.

Ample supply

The Israeli strategy has, however, already created potentials for conflict in an already unstable region, expanding the power-play to Cyprus, Greece, France, Italy, and Libya, as well as Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, and Russia.

On January 2, Netanyahu was in Athens signing a gas pipeline deal with Greek Prime Minister Kyriako Mitotakis and Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades.

The EastMed pipeline is projected to travel from Israel to Cyprus, to Greece and, ultimately, to Italy, thus transporting eastern Mediterranean gas directly to the heart of Europe.

A few years ago, this scenario seemed unthinkable, as Israel has, in fact, imported much of its natural gas from neighbouring Egypt.

Israel’s Tamar field partly rectified Israel’s reliance on imported gas when it began production in 2003. Shortly after, Israel struck gas again, this time with far greater potential, in the massive Leviathan field. On December 31, 2019, Leviathan began pumping gas for the first time.

Leviathan is located in the Mediterranean Sea’s Levantine Basin, a region that is rich with hydrocarbons.

“Leviathan is estimated to hold over 21 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — enough to fill Israeli power-generation needs for the next 40 years, while still leaving an ample supply for export,” wrote Frank Musmar in the BESA Centre for Strategic Studies website.

Israeli diversification

Israel is diversifying beyond exerting regional economic dominance, to becoming a major player on the international geopolitical stage as well. The EastMed pipeline project, estimated at €6 billion (Dh23.87 billion), is expected to cover 10 per cent of Europe’s overall need for natural gas. This is where things get even more interesting.

Turkey believes that the deal, which involves its own regional rivals, Cyprus and Greece, is designed specifically to marginalise it economically, by excluding it from the Mediterranean’s hydrocarbon boom.

Ankara is already a massive energy hub, being the host of TurkStream which feeds Europe, with approximately 40 per cent of its needs of natural gas coming from Russia.

This fact has provided both Moscow and Ankara not only with more than economic advantages but with geostrategic leverage as well. If the EastMed pipeline becomes a reality, Turkey and Russia will stand to lose the most.

In a series of successive, and surprising moves, Turkey retaliated by signing a maritime border deal with Libya’s internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), and by committing to send military support to help Tripoli in its fight against forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar.

“Turkey will not permit any activity that is against its own interests in the region,” Fuat Oktay, Turkey’s vice-president, told Anadolu News Agency, adding that, “any plan that disregards Turkey has absolutely no chance of success.”

Pipe dream

Although European countries were quick to condemn Ankara, the latter has succeeded in changing the rules of the game by staking a claim to vast areas that are also claimed by Greece and Cyprus, as part of their so-called exclusive economic zones (EEZ).

Not only will Turkey be drilling in Libya’s territorial waters for natural gas, but also in disputed water near Cyprus. Ankara is accusing Cyprus of violating “the equal claim to discoveries”, an arrangement that followed the military conflict between both countries in 1974.

If the issue is not resolved, the EastMed pipeline project could potentially turn into a pipe dream. What seemed like a lucrative deal with immense geopolitical significance from an Israeli point of view, now appears to be another extension of the wider Middle Eastern conflict.

While the European Union is eager to loosen Russia’s strategic control over the natural gas market, the EastMed pipeline increasingly appears unfeasible from every possible angle.

However, considering the massive deposits of natural gas that are ready to fuel struggling European markets, it is almost certain that the Mediterranean natural gas will eventually become a major source of political disputes, if not a war.

— Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is ‘These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons’ (Clarity Press, Atlanta).

More on the issue