Israel's giant new natural gas find will transform the Middle East -- and add more fuel to an already combustible region.
BY ROBIN M. MILLS | SEPTEMBER 15, 2011
Noble has been given the green light by the U.S. Embassy in Nicosia to go ahead with drilling in Cypriot waters adjacent to Leviathan. In contrast, Lebanon and Syria have been painfully slow to realize their opportunity. Major oil companies had looked at the area as early as 2001, yet Lebanon's fractious parliament only passed an oil law in 2010 after enviously eyeing Israel's success. Syria had planned to award exploration blocks this year, but this seems unlikely as long as the uprising against the Assad regime continues.
Meanwhile, the unfortunate people of Gaza, whose field arguably started the whole rush, suffer from daily power cuts. Long negotiations to develop their gas predictably went nowhere because the Israelis had no intention of giving the Palestinian Authority an additional source of revenue, especially after Hamas's 2007 takeover of the strip.
The Israelis now have an abundance of riches. They could export gas to Jordan, whose economy is struggling under the burden of expensive oil. The Jordanians, though, might play them off against Iraq, a more politically palatable supplier that will also have excess gas to sell within a few years.
Other than that, without any friends in the region, the Israelis will have to look west for markets. They could have built a pipeline through Cyprus and on to Turkey and mainland Europe. But, with impeccable timing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has escalated a war of rhetoric against Turkey, as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman reportedly threatened with his characteristic finesse to arm the Kurdish PKK group.
Instead, Israel will probably require more costly and complicated liquefaction facilities in order to ship the gas by tanker to customers in Southern Europe.
The other problem is the region's territorial disputes. Israel and the Republic of Cyprus -- that's the Greek one -- have delineated their maritime border and have shared economic interests. But the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon is not demarcated, and Lebanon has weakened its position with diplomatic missteps while each side has submitted its own claims. These will be hard to resolve: International courts and arbitration do not apply while the two states have no diplomatic relations, and Israel has not signed the 1994 Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The actual overlapping claims area is surprisingly small, and it seems clear that Tamar and Leviathan lie in Israeli waters. Yet Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to retaliate against Israel's gas installations for any attempt to "steal" Lebanese natural resources. It appears that underwater gas could become another Shebaa Farms issue, a minor territorial claim exploited to perpetuate the Lebanese-Israeli conflict.
The Israelis are probably well capable of defending offshore installations against Lebanese or Palestinian threats, particularly as the wells will be on the seabed beneath 1,600 meters of water. Turkey is an entirely different matter. Turkey, of course, recognizes neither EU member Cyprus, having backed the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus since the 1974 war and partition of the island, nor the Cyprus-Israel accord.
Turkish Cypriot President Dervis Eroglu said in early August that Cyprus's gas (not a molecule of which has yet been discovered) belonged not only to Greek Cypriots but to Turkish Cypriots and Turkey too.
Turkish pressure is likely to push Cyprus deeper into Israel's willing embrace. Solon Kassinis, head of Cyprus's Energy Service, fired back at the Turks, "I expected Turkey to bark, but I don't think they will do anything ... if they want to be considered a country that respects international law." Greece, which has been wooed by Israel following its rupture with the Turks, vowed to defend Greek Cypriot sovereignty.
The most explosive issue, however, is the rupture of Turkish-Israeli relations. Although Turkey has no maritime border with Israel, nor much prospect of sharing in the offshore gas bounty, the Cyprus and Lebanon disputes give it an excellent opening to retaliate for Israeli intransigence over the Gaza-bound flotilla raid and other areas of dispute.
Interviewed by Al Jazeera, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared on Sept. 8, "Turkey will not allow Israel exclusive use of the resources of the Mediterranean Sea" and said he planned to dispatch three frigates to confront Israeli warships. Israeli Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau responded, "Israel can support and secure the rigs that we are going to have in the Mediterranean." But in the current political climate, neither Turkey nor Lebanon wants to give Israel an easy path to riches.
The United States has urged Turkey and Israel to ease tensions, while saying that it viewed the gas discoveries overall as positive. In a few years, if all goes well, some brave soul in Congress might question the irony of a major gas exporter's being the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.
But in the short term, the lure of riches makes conflict resolution more difficult and gives hard-liners on all sides another casus belli. Tamar and Leviathan are unfortunately not the catalyst for regional peace and prosperity, but, rather, more fuel in an already combustible mix.