Will Turkey get in the way of Israeli gas?

AFTER years of negotiations in the Knesset and with energy companies, after testing the environmental impact, after a case in the High Court and more, Israel officially became a gas exporter this week.

Noble Energy Company began pumping natural gas from the Leviathan gas field in the Mediterranean to Jordan on Wednesday, starting a three-month test period ahead of exporting a commercial supply.

And at the same time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Energy, Water and Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz headed to Athens for the seventh trilateral summit between Israel, Greece and Cyprus, to sign an agreement that will allow an undersea natural gas pipeline from Israel to Europe to be constructed.

This is certainly a historic week for Israel’s energy sectors and economy in general, but regional realities may get in the way, with continuing animosity between Turkey and all three countries involved in the deal.

The ambitious pipeline is one of the European Union’s “Projects of Common Interest,” and is planned to be 1,900 km long, reaching from Israeli economic waters to Greece, via Cyprus.

On the western Greek mainland, the pipeline will connect to the planned Poseidon Pipeline, co-financed by the EU, and will run from the Greek-Turkish border to Italy.

The pipeline will be able to transport 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually from Israeli and Cypriot gas fields by 2025, and is projected to eventually reach double that amount.

Dore Gold, President of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs and the former Director-General of the Foreign Ministry, explained that “the EU believes they need to diversify energy sources.

“They now depend on Algeria, Russia and Norway” for energy, he said. “Algeria could sink into a new jihadist storm. Russia depends on the nature of relations with the EU at any given time.

It makes sense for them to obtain Eastern Mediterranean gas without cutting off what they have.”

With gas flowing from Israel and Cyprus, the EU could have greater energy security for its member states, and competition in the market to lower prices.

Meanwhile, as Netanyahu explained on the tarmac on the way to Athens, exporting gas will “not just bring down the price of gas and then the price of electricity, it will bring hundreds of billions into the state’s coffers, for the welfare of Israeli citizens, for the elderly, for children, health and welfare.”

Israel is happy, EU countries are happy, and it looks like everyone stands to gain.

Even Israeli environmentalists were licking their wounds Thursday, after no marked increase in pollution was found after a day of gas being pumped from the Leviathan gas field.

But nothing is ever perfect, and the gas deal is no exception.

Israel, Greece and Cyprus are “determined to create a shared future for themselves, based to a great extent on cooperation in the area of energy.

“However, in order to realize their shared goals, Israel, Greece and Cyprus must pay attention to the elephant in the room: Turkey,” a policy fellow at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, Gabriel Mitchell said.

Turkey is a historic enemy of Greece and Cyprus, and occupies Northern Cyprus.

Beyond the long-lasting animosity, in late November, Ankara signed an agreement with the Libyan government in Tripoli creating a maritime link between them, by which each country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), a concept in maritime law, goes 200 km beyond their shores, which is far beyond their territorial waters.

According to the deal, Libya’s EEZ goes northward to Turkey and Turkey’s EEZ goes south toward Libya, and meet in the middle of the Mediterranean.

Turkey is already trying to create facts on the ground about its authority in the Eastern Mediterranean, with its navy ordering an Israeli research ship out of Cyprus’s waters last month.

Gold described these developments as Turkey “ratcheting up its posture” in the region.

“Right now, there is a situation where most of the countries in the Middle East and Greece and Cyprus oppose the Turkish moves with Libya, and Turkey is rather isolated, but it is continuing to take these robust positions that Israel has quietly opposed,” he explained.

An EEZ does not normally mean that there is territorial sovereignty over the seabed, but Turkey has already indicated to Israeli officials that it plans to treat it that way, and any moves in the Eastern Mediterranean have to be coordinated with it, even though the pipeline from Israel to Greece is not planned to go through internationally recognized Turkish territorial waters.

“There will be those who argue that for a pipeline to cross the area, they need Turkish permission, but there is no basis for that,” Gold said.

“Over the past decade, we saw again and again how tightening relations between Israel, Greece and Cyprus led Turkey to take steps to counter it,” he recounted. “That is expected to happen following the summit in Athens.”

Building a pipeline from Israel to Europe via Cyprus “will be a very difficult mission to accomplish without international mediation with Turkey,” Mitchell said, to the extent that Israel may have to find alternatives to exporting to Europe.

Mitvim Director, Dr. Nimrod Goren suggested that Israel should make sure not to frame the pipeline as anti-Turkish, but he still said that the “possibility of a pipeline to Europe is very much in doubt.”

While Netanyahu and Steinitz celebrate their latest achievements – rightly so – in Athens, they need to keep their eyes on the next bump in the road, if they want to be able to export gas to Europe.