ISRAEL, NATURAL GAS AND POWER IN THE MIDDLE EAST – APRIL 27, 2015 DR JEAN-MICHEL VALANTIN Benyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime minister is known to joke about the fact that Moses led his people during forty years in the desert to the only place in the Middle East without oil (Marin Katusa, The Colder War, 2014). And, indeed, for the first sixty years of its existence, the lack of energy resources has been a major difficulty for Israel.
Levant_Basin – Oil and Gas Field in Eastern Mediterranean Region – U.S. EIA
However, a profound change seems to be underway, since two giant off-shore natural gas deposits have been discovered in the Israeli exclusive economic zone in 2011. The Tamar and the Leviathan fields hold respectively 10 and between 19 and 22 trillion cubic feet of gas of estimated reserves, which could ensure decades of domestic consumption as well as exports (Katusa, ibid.).
Furthermore, in 2014, the Israeli government and administration have authorised exploratory oil drilling in the Golan Heights, in particular in the region of the Sea of Galilee, despite a heated campaign led by environmental activists (Melanie Lidman, “Israel Oil War Shifts to Golan Heights”, The Times of Israel, September 18, 2014). In other words, Israel is becoming an energy power. This is nothing but a very profound transformation of its regional and international status, which, from its origins to these days, had been largely dominated by the issues of its tangled and violent relationship with Palestinians, by the strategic alliance with the U.S., and by being a Jewish nation-state in a region of Arab nations (Ilan Greilsammer, La nouvelle histoire d’Israel, 1998).
This transformation is due to the fact that becoming an energy player and exporter is not only a way to produce power and influence, but also that natural gas and oil are attractors of numerous and powerful foreign interests and needs (Michael Klare, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, 2008). Furthermore, this happens when the whole region goes through a mix of transformative dynamics, not “only” geopolitically, economically, and politically, but also socio-environmentally, especially through interacting growing pressures on water,biodiversity, food and climate.
These shifting environmental conditions trigger cascading feedback effects on the political, war and terror situations in the Middle East (Valantin, “Collapse war in the Middle East?”, The Red Team Analysis, April 7, 2015). This complex of factors is affecting both the present and future of Israel energy and strategic evolution.
Israel in a shifting Middle East
Since its creation in 1948, Israel holds a very singular strategic place in the Middle East. After decades of conflict with the surrounding Arab countries and, notably, the ongoing conflict with the Palestinian Hamas, it has reached a situation of warming relations with Egypt and Jordan (Lally Weymouth, “Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sissi who talks “a lot” with Netanyahu, says in country in danger of collapse”, The Washington Post, March 12, 2015), while being in a permanent state of tension with Syria, even more so since the start of the civil war.
Israel has been able to survive, to install itself in the Middle East, and to become a modern and influential country, through the efforts and capabilities of its population and a sustained American political and military support, largely through a long-lasting special (and military) relationship (Camille Mansour, Israël et les Etats-Unis, 1995).
Furthermore, another singular feature of Israel in the Middle East regional landscape, was the fact that, during its first sixty years of existence, it was a country without any oil or natural gas, and thus totally dependent on oil and gas imports, for example from Egypt (Gismatullin, “Egypt importing gas for the first time as export disappear“, Bloomberg Business, December 11, 2012), in a region dominated by oil and gas exporting countries (Matthieu Auzanneau, Or Noir, la grande histoire du pétrole, 2015).
It must be remembered that, since the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Middle East has gone through a cascade of political destabilization, and that Israel has had to adapt to these dynamics. The destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime and of the Iraqi state through the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, among others, the following “de-baathisation” and the departure of the U.S. military in 2010 (Gordon and Trainor, The Endgame, 2012), preceded the 2011 wave of regime change of the Arab Spring. The latter triggered, notably, the civil war in neighboring Syria, which, mixed with the Iraqi disaster allowed for the rise of the Islamic State (Helene Lavoix, “Portal to the Islamic State war”, The Red Team Analysis Society).
In the same time, tensions have not stopped growing between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which already led to a strange and uneasy strategic partnership between the Saudi Kingdom and Israel against the Iranian nuclear project (David Crist, The Twilight war, the secret history of America’s thirty years conflict with Iran, 2012). Adding to these, the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon war as well as the unending conflict with the Palestinians, are further coalescing factors of tensions (Corm, Le Proche Orient éclaté, 2012).
However, over the same period of time, oil prices have gone from 20 per dollars per barrel at the end of the twentieth century to 115 dollars in July 2014, before being forced down to around 50 dollars since then by Saudi Arabia-led OPEC, and Russia (Valantin, “Oil flood (1): The Kingdom is back”, The Red Team Analysis Society, December 15, 2014). The coupling of the regional political destabilization and of the surging energy and financial importance of oil and gas in an energy hungry globalized world have changed the strategic balance of the whole region, and thus is a strong engine of the strategic evolution of Israel through the importance of its gas fields.
Israel and the new Mediterranean energy network
The emergence of Israel as a Mediterranean energy player comes as a new driver of this momentous regional strategic change. The Tamar and the Leviathan gas fields are developed at the very moment when the energy relations between the Middle East countries, and those of the North of the Mediterranean Sea, especially Turkey, Greece, as well as the European Union are shifting.
This shift in the relations of Israel with its political environment follows three distinct axes: the energy and strategic cooperation with Egypt and Jordan, the discussions with Cyprus and Greece, and the multifaceted relationship with the Russian energy strategy, which involves Turkey.Gas exports to Jordan from the Tamar field have been approved in April 2015, while discussions are on their way with Egypt, which could import 145 to 210 million cubic feet of LNG per day during 2015 ( “Egypt’s petroleum minister increases purchase price of gas from new developments“, Natural Gas Europe, March 24th, 2015). These Israeli exports are the medium of a profound political shift in the region. In effect, until 2011 and the start of the Arab spring, Egypt was exporting natural gas to Israel and Jordan. This shift owes not only to the new energy situation in Israel, but also to conditions specific to Egypt and Jordan, impacted by the start of numerous guerrillas in Egypt and of the Iraqi and Syrian refugees crisis in Jordan.
Since the start of what we called the “Egyptian energy guerrilla” (Valantin, “Egypt, climate change and the long resource civil war”, The Red Team Analysis Society, April 14, 2014), which opposes militant groups to the Egyptian government, repeated attacks on natural gas pipelines by different groups have occurred in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 (“Gas Pipeline Attacked in Egypt Sinai“, Arham On Line, 11 Feb. 2014). For example, between January 2011 and July 2012 only, 15 attacks took place (Mohamed Werr, “Blast rocks Egypt’s gas pipeline to Israel, Jordan“, Reuters, July 21). The means used are either “improvised explosive devices” or attacks by armed groups on pipelines stations (Ibid).
These attacks and the spread of the Islamist guerrillas have put an end to Egyptian exports of natural gas to Israel and Jordan (Valantin, ibid), while Israel is starting to develop its own gas deposits and getting ready to export some of it to Egypt (Karen Ayat, “Israel to sell gas from the Tamar field to Jordan”, Natural Gas Europe, 08th April, 2015). In other words, Israel becomes an actor of the sustainability of the Egyptian economy and social cohesion, and thus, implicitly, a support of the Egyptian government.
Following the same logic, the decision to sell gas to Jordan is going to help that country to compensate for the loss of Egyptian gas, and goes with other forms of environmental cooperation (Valantin, “Climate of change on the Red Sea”, The Red Team Analysis Society, November 25, 2013).
The_dead_sea_(5101565062)For example, in the field of desalination, a technological field in which Israel is very advanced (William Booth, “Israel knows water technology and it wants to cash in”, The Washington Post, October 25, 2013), a project between Israel and Jordan is developed to pump sea water from the canal currently built by Jordan, which is going to link the Red sea to the Dead sea (Suleiman Al Khalidi, “Jordan Israel agree $ 900 million Dead sea Red Sea project”, Reuters, Feb 26, 2015).
It will support the rising water needs of the Jordanian kingdom, due to its own demographics and to the massive inflow of Iraqi and Syrian refugees who, in less than ten years, have expanded the Jordanian population by more than one and a half million of people, in a country where hydric stress has reached a critical threshold (UNHCR, Syria regional refugee response, 14 April, 2015).
So, exporting its gas to Jordan further allows Israel to participate actively in the sustainability of the Hashemite kingdom, notably contributing to prevent socio-environmental collapse. Should such a tragedy occur, the massive new flows of refugees, in their own desperate search for safety and sustainability, would saturate the whole region.
In other words, it is possible to make the hypothesis that becoming a gas exporter allows Israel, which singularity is to be a very recent Jewish nation in the Arab world, to support two of its Arab neighbours, so that the ruling political authorities can keep on controlling the risks of political and religious radicalization. Furthermore, the Israeli gas helps them not to collapse under the added strain that an energy crisis would add to their very tense social, political and water situation (Valantin, ibid).
However, this natural gas dynamic creates new tensions with Lebanon, which accuses Israel of “stealing” the gas of the Leviathan field (“Lebanese officials claim U.S. blocking resolution of gas dispute with Israel”, Haaretz, 21 dec., 2014).
Meanwhile, Israel works with the government of Cyprus, which has started off-shore drilling for natAlexis_Tsipras_in_Moscow_5ural gas too, and with the new Greek Siriza government, in order to elaborate an energy cooperation (Gedalyah Reback, “Israel-Greek-Cypriot Alliance Challenges Turkey in the Med”, Arutz Sheva, 3/9/2015). The cooperation with south Cyprus is interesting to note, because it happens in a context where Turkey is also interested by off-shore gas drilling in the area while the Erdogan government and the Netanyahu government are going through a period of cold relations (Reback, ibid).
However, both governments are in talks with Russia: Ankara and Moscow have signed a deal to develop the gas pipeline “Turkish stream”, which replaces the “South stream project” (Valantin, “Turkey, an energy and environmental power”, The Red Team Analysis Society, February 25, 2015), while Gazprom discusses with the Israeli government in order to share its technological advanced knowledge in off-shore gas drilling (Katusa, ibid).
This could mean that the development by Israel of its natural gas resources involves a political shift towards both Turkey and Russia. This latter energy strategy can help Israel to support its energy development, while installing it in a favourable stance toward Russia, while having a close and complicated relation with the US.
Accessing these new off-shore resources leads the Netanyahu government to acquire serious naval military capabilities, because it needs to be able to protect its off-shore installations from attacks (“Israel boosts around naval gas fields, fearing guerilla attacks“, Haaretz, Nov. 21, 2011), which could come from the Palestinian Hamas, the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, or any other extremist or ill-intentioned actor. As a result, the Israeli government has started a naval built-up.
For example, the Defense Ministry is upgrading Sa’ar missile boats and corvettes, its fast patrol vessels Shaldag and super Davora Mark III with state of the art weapons and electronic warfare, as well as its anti-missiles and anti-aircraft capabilities. The Israeli navy has also ordered two new and very powerful Dolphins attack submarines (Nicholas Saidel and Julian Kasdin, “With Natural gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, Israel now has a new front: the Sea”, Tablet, January 17, 2014). Furthermore, it is closing a deal for F 124 Sachsen class frigates, the largest ships of the German navy (Saidel and Kasdin, ibid). This means that Israel becomes a Mediterranean naval power.
A power in itself?
Over a very short time span of barely four years, from the discovery of the Tamar and the Leviathan field to today, Israel has moved from the status of “protected” power to the status of an emerging energy power. This is a transformation of its importance, of its role and of its inherent power.
We must not forget that with power comes status (Norbert Elias, The civilizing process, vol.II, State formation and civilization, 1982). In the case of Israel, this new “new status” as an energy power comes with a strange kind of Middle East “normality”: as other Middle East powers, as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, it is now an exporter of energy; as Saudi Arabia, it is supporting Egypt and Jordan, while being wary of Assad’s Syria, as well as of the expansion of the Islamic State and of the strategic projects of Iran, and it works at being more independent from the U.S.
Furthermore, on a deeper level, it shares the “common destiny” of all the Middle East countries, defined by socio-environmental dynamics, which are entangled with demographics, water and food issues, and the growing and enduring impact of climate change.
So, in fact, the long-term question and uncertainty created by the Tamal and Leviathan gas fields are related to the way Israel will use its new off-shore gas reserves and consequent impacts. Will Israel use them to enhance its adaptation to the rapidly changing environment as well as its relations with its Arab neighbours, as so far seems to be the case? On the contrary, could this gas bounty turn into a new version of the “resource curse”, well-known to some countries of the Middle East (Michael Klare, Resource wars, 2002)?
* Slight discrepancies with the U.S Energy Information Agency, “Israel”.
Jean-Michel Valantin, (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.
Featured Image: May 7, 2012, The Israeli and Greek Navies joined forces and put their cooperation to the test last May, when the two armies conducted a joint-drill near the Island of Piraeus. Photograph by Staff Sgt. Ori Shifrin, IDF Spokesperson’s unit. The Israel Defense Forces, By http://www.flickr.com/people/45644610@N03 (http://www.flickr.com/photos/idfonline/7698094148/) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.