There has been much talk about the potential for natural gas discovered in the East Mediterranean to change the regional geopolitical status quo. A noticeable shift has certainly occurred regarding the Israel-Cyprus-Greece entente, but defining Levant Basin gas as the game changer that transformed the equation severely overdetermines the role of energy as a factor that makes or breaks the structure of a complicated part of the world. The existence of significant offshore natural gas reserves has undoubtedly altered the political calculus, but the elements of the Arab uprisings and Turkey’s behavior contributed to these changes to a much greater degree.
Israel’s relationships with Cyprus and Greece have improved measurably in the past few years. Both states were known for aggressively backing the Arab and Palestinian causes since the creation of Israel up until the twenty-first century. One very low point occurred in 2002, when a Cypriot parliamentary delegation was denied entry into Israel after attempting to meet with Yasser Arafat, then under house arrest in Ramallah.
While Greece and Cyprus still do support the Palestinians―Cyprus having given Palestine full diplomatic status this year and Greece having voted to accord it non-member observer status at the UN General Assembly in November―they have also warmed considerably towards Israel. Cypriot-Israeli exchanges have become particularly frequent since 2011 and occur at the presidential and prime ministerial levels. Moshe Katsav was the first Israeli president to visit Greece in 2006, and in 2010 Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou went to Israel in a bid to repair relations. Since then, similar bilateral diplomatic exchanges have increased.
One reason for Cypriot and Greek antagonism towards Israel, of course, was the latter’s strong economic and military ties with Turkey. That relationship began to deteriorate toward the end of the 1990s and into the early 2000s with the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and events related to the Iraq War. The decay culminated in the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, when Israeli armed forces killed Turkish citizens on board an aid flotilla bound for Gaza, creating an opening for cooperation with Greece and Cyprus.
Turkish behavior after the fact, including demands for reparations and Prime Minister Erdogan’s relentless anti-Israel rhetoric, indicated that Israel needed to find new allies in the region. Cyprus and Greece, antagonized for decades by Turkey, were ideal candidates. The Arab uprisings also pushed Israel to form new relationships after the cold peace with Egypt shattered, and domestic Turkish Islamization has made Israel, Greece, and Cyprus more wary about working together to protect their democratic institutions.
These trends have provided an opening for the energy factor, which has produced tangible results, notably increased cooperation on environmental issues and joint military drills that are cast in the context of natural gas. The tripartite energy memorandum of understanding signed in August provides for collaboration between Israel and Cyprus on water issues like sewage treatment and waste water reuse. In 2012, Israel’s then-Energy and Water Minister Uzi Landau traveled to Athens to sign a bilateral agreement on cooperation in environmental protection, which called for “exchanging knowledge and sharing expertise” on issues like energy efficiency and desalination. According to Israel’s energy and water ministry, these agreements “have arisen from their mutual natural gas discoveries.”
The conclusion of such deals, of course, both necessitated and created ministerial and other bureaucratic exchanges. Cypriot and Greek energy and environment ministers have been hosted by their Israeli counterparts―and vice versa―several times since 2011, the year after the discovery of the Leviathan natural gas field offshore Israel’s coast and the world’s largest of the past decade.
Joint military drills with an emphasis on natural gas protection are a second byproduct of the existence of hydrocarbons in the Levant Basin. Israel and Cyprus conducted an air force exercise in 2011, which was followed by a joint aeronautical drill in April 2013 that included the participation of Israeli warships. Cypriot Defense Minister Fotis Fotiou even confirmed that the exercise was intended to focus on the security of gas companies in the eastern Mediterranean. Israel was also due to host the Cyprus air force in a multinational drill this month.
Greece and Israel conducted a naval exercise with the United States in 2012 that actually involved simulated protection of offshore natural gas platforms. The operation was repeated in 2013 and is now a “scheduled annual exercise.” There have also been several joint air force drills, but that development resulted more from the suspension of Israel’s training exercises with Turkey since 2009 and the need to find a regional replacement.
The new energy calculus has clearly changed how the players in the game operate. Still, natural gas on its own cannot―and has not―changed the regional status quo. Mutual interests relating to natural gas would not have provided enough cover on their own for Israel to engage in such an active dialogue with Greece and Cyprus, since its military relationship with Turkey was of the utmost strategic importance. Despite increasing diplomatic and military cooperation, “a strategic energy alliance has remained heretofore unconsummated.” The trilateral memorandum of understanding is nonbinding, and does not provide for any details on joint protection of natural gas resources, nor is there any indication that the establishment of a multinational force is in the cards.
Energy is definitely playing a role in reshaping the Mediterranean, but it is an effect rather than a cause. More cooperation between Israel and Cyprus and Greece on natural gas is imminent, but it is important to remember that it is not a force of nature on its own. Offshore natural gas is changing the rules of the game, but these much larger and more influential trends will ultimately determine the region’s geopolitical trajectory.