Will Israel soon be exporting natural gas to Europe via an extended pipeline?  

On January 14, the energy ministers of Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Italy, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority met in Cairo in order to discuss the establishment of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, which some claim will lead to the establishment of a new OPEC.  The seven-country Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, which includes one third of the world’s natural gas reserves, is expected to make it easy to transport natural gas from the Middle East to European markets.  The question remains, how close is it to actually becoming a reality?

The establishment of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum is a heated topic in the Middle East region.  For this reason, many officials were not willing to discuss it.  The Israeli Foreign Ministry declined a request to be interviewed on the topic.   The Cypriot Embassy in Washington, DC and the Egyptian Embassy in Israel also did not respond to inquiries regarding the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum and what happened in the Cairo meeting before the publication of this piece.

Nevertheless, Greek Cypriot energy expert Kyriocos Kyriakides is very optimistic about recent developments “The Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum is the culmination of regional gas developments and collaborations going back several years. The EU is constantly looking to optimize its energy mix. Therefore, the EU’s energy security and diversification needs, along with gas discoveries in Egyptian, Israeli & Cypriot EEZs, in a sense dictated EMGF’s creation. In time, we should expect regional gas policies and practices’ alignment to European norms, the development of a genuine energy trading hub in the region, as well as more supply alternatives to Europe, either through the East Med pipeline or via additional LNG plants in Israel & Cyprus. It is a multifaceted win scenario for all involved and the region.”

Philip Christopher, the President of the International Coordinating Committee of Justice for Justice, a Greek Cypriot lobby group, stated in an exclusive interview: “The issue of hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean has been the most dynamic development in the last decade.  I would like to remind everyone that things people said were not possible 10-15 years ago not only have become commercially feasible but are on the cusp of becoming reality.  Whether an Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum happens or not depends on the results of exploration that is under way right now. There are several additional plots that still are to be drilled.  But if the current Exxon-Mobile drilling yields significant results, we will be very close to an Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum.”  He noted that once it is established, all of the countries in the region will have shared economic interests, which will give them a greater incentive to cooperate on the geopolitical and security front in order to “reduce their financial risks.”

However, Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, who formerly served as Israel’s Ambassador to Jordan, stated in an exclusive interview that he thinks that the deal is still a long way from becoming a reality: “All of them have an interest in producing gas and exporting the gas for their economic benefit.  This is why they met but this is a long way away from any permanent structure or organization.”  However, he did note that an idea which is correct can be turned into something concrete: “All of the gas producers in the region and those on the European side have a common goal and that is to have natural gas produced in the Eastern Mediterranean that can be conveyed to Europe, which is the largest consumer.”

Former Israeli Ambassador to Greece Arie Mekel, who presently is a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, stated that he agreed that at the moment, the idea is only theoretical:  “The idea has been tossed around for 8 or 9 years already.  It is discussed in every summit.  The principal is good.  Since Israel has natural gas, we need a pipeline and if it is through Cyprus and Greece, it can go through Italy and onto other countries.  However, I do not think that anything practical has happened in this direction yet.  The option is on paper but we are not sure how practical it is.”

Nevertheless, there are many stumbling blocks in the way of establishing the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum.  One of the obstacles is economic as the project is very expensive and so far, no one has put forward the money to pay for the project.  The other major obstacle is political.  Eran noted:  “I doubt that the countries involved will batch up their differences.” Due to these political issues, a number of countries in the Eastern Mediterranean have been left out of the deal and some of the parties to the deal have issues with one another.  According to him, Lebanon, which has natural gas reserves, has not begun to produce and is still not participating for they are not willing to reach an agreement on their areas of dispute with Israel.  Mekel added: “In theory, everything is possible.  But we know that reasonable plans and ideas do not seem to fly in this part of the world.  I do not see such a project.  The King of Jordan just expressed anger over the new airport in Eilat.  That was a much smaller idea totally on Israeli grounds.  And of course, the Palestinians are the Palestinians.  Shimon Peres had many great ideas like this.  Unfortunately, they did not happen.”

Similarly, Turkey and subsequently the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus are being left out of the deal.  Due to Erdogan’s behavior in the Middle East region, Former Israel Consul General to Istanbul Eli Shaked declared in an exclusive interview that the countries who are parting in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum are all trying to bypass Turkey with this deal, even though doing it via Turkey is the cheaper option: “As I see it, Erdogan is the only one to be blamed for the kind of political isolation that he imposed upon Turkey from all sides.  If we can think of a totally different situation for Turkey, then of course Turkey should have been a natural partner for such a project in the Eastern Mediterranean.  Even Israel would have been glad to have Turkey in this partnership.  But in the situation prevailing in the last couple of years, not only between Israel and Turkey but also between Turkey and Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, not to mention Turkey and Cyprus, Turkey is excluded from all possible partnerships.  They do not like it I am sure.  Erdogan can blame no one but himself.”

According to Shaked, Erdogan’s treatment of Israel resulted in the Jewish state improving its relations with both Greece and Cyprus, two countries that historically were not close to Israel.  As a result, he noted that Turkey is now paying a price for Erdogan’s not so clever politics: “Egypt also has bad relations with Turkey while the two countries used to have good relations before Erdogan.”  He noted that it is the same with Saudi Arabia.  According to Shaked, Erdogan’s relationship not only with Egypt but also Saudi Arabia and even the Palestinian Authority went sour due to the fact that he was reaching out to Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood: “There is a bitter grievance if not animosity.  Turkey has become irrelevant as far as the Eastern Mediterranean is concerned. There is an animosity that has never been there before.”  As a result, Shaked noted that Turkey is losing out economically by being excluded from the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, which is likely to result in Israel and the other seven member states obtaining energy independence.

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Rachel Avraham is the President of the Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi Center for Human Rights in Middle East (under formation) and is a political analyst at the Safadi Center for International Diplomacy, Research, Public Relations and Human Rights, which is run by Mendi Safadi, Israeli Communication Minister Ayoob Kara's former chief of staff. In addition, she is a counter-terror analyst at the Islamic Theology on Counter-Terrorism, a think tank run by British Pakistani dissident Noor Dahri. For over 6 years, she is a Middle East based journalist, covering radical Islam, terrorism, human rights abuses in the Muslim world, minority rights abuses in the Muslim world, women's rights issues in the Muslim world, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Jewish Diaspora, anti-Semitism, international affairs and other issues of importance. Avraham is the author of “Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab Media," a ground breaking book that was endorsed by former Israel Consul General Dr. Yitzchak Ben Gad and Israeli Communications Minister Ayoob Kara.