international analysis and commentary

Israel and the Mediterranean option: onboarding Egypt while containing Turkey

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The recent Israeli military operation against the Gaza Strip, branded by the Israeli Defense Forces as  “Guardians of the Wall”, halted under a ceasefire on May 21st. Israel was once again at war with the Palestinians over its contested occupation of East Jerusalem, particularly over the divided and creeping colonized neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where the conflict originally began.

The fourth Israeli-Gaza conflict came at a time when the intra-party negotiations were aiming to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after some 25 years in power, eventually supplanting him with a loose multi-small party coalition labeled “the Government for Change”. However, the conflict reshuffled the deck, pushing Naftali Bennet, the leader of Yamina, to split from his prospective center and center-left partners, resetting the political game back to square one. Thus, Netanyahu had already scored his first big win: to buy some more time in power, while slowly rebuilding in the backstage a strong right-wing coalition prompt to welcome ex-splinter right-wing parties on board.

Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu

 

The latest conflict broke out at an incredibly positive moment for Israel: It had just successfully overcome the Covid-19 crisis by mass vaccination and was projected towards restoring full touristic access to its religious and sightseeing sites over the summer. Moreover, Israeli economic losses had been contained (-2.4% in GDP contraction compared to an average -6.1 in the EU).

Meanwhile, the Biden administration in the US, despite reversing some extreme anti-Palestinian choices of the Trump administration (such as restoring US funds to United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees and considering repairing diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority broken since December 2017), had signaled not being eager to address the most controversial issues (the 2019 Taylor Force Act and the transfer of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and the Golan Heights US recognition) or to harbor any whims on a renewal of Israeli-Palestinian talks, thus pushing them into a second-tier position. In addition, the Biden administration pointed out clearly that the Abraham Accords will stay, with all their promising peace and economic rewards for Israel and the concrete possibility to be embraced by more Arab countries, such as Morocco, whose subscription to the new “Middle Eastern moderate club” is already in the pipeline. This was reflected in the declarations by Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita at an American Israel Public Affairs Committee event about his country’s willingness to tighten relations with Israel and push for further regional normalization with the Jewish state.

Furthermore, Israel could make good use of its natural gas reserves to reach out to those Arab countries, such Egypt, which is more skeptical not as much about the prospects of regional peace, but rather about those of boosting ties with its Jewish neighbor. The success of the Israeli natural gas industry, thanks to the recent discoveries of the Leviathan gas fields by Delek Drilling and other junior partners, is unquestionable.

Leviathan gas drills off Israel’s shore

 

Since December 2019, production has kicked off, turning Tel Aviv into a net exporter of natural resources to Jordan and Egypt, with contracts worth $10 and $15 billion respectively. No matter what the political resistance of both Arab countries and their respective public opinions to Israel, economic cooperation is already a fact plain. Israeli soft power penetration in the region comes not only with potential rewards as, in fact, Tel Aviv could also be drawn into the new regional divide lying ahead over the Mediterranean maritime border demarcation conflicts.

In 2019, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Italy, Jordan and France established the EastMed Gas Forum (EMGF) with headquarters in Cairo. On August 6, 2020, Greece and Egypt had signed a partial bilateral agreement and issued a joint map of the Egyptian exclusive hydrocarbon exploitation area, openly disregarding Turkey’s competing claims and actually in response to the bilateral Libyan-Turkish maritime border agreement signed in November 2019.

On its side, Turkey has outlined its “Blue Homeland doctrine” as its foreign policy banner: The country’s new strategic line dictates that maritime borders equal land borders as state security objectives. Turkey, thus, exposes its willingness to protect its Mediterranean exclusive economic zone at any cost by deploying its naval fleet, even possibly with the order to fire weapons: It is no coincidence that the first naval exercise of that sort was conducted in November 2019, one month prior the EMGF’s establishment. The Mediterranean gas competition streak overlaps with the dispute over Libya, with Egypt setting clear territorial red lines for Turkish-led eastward advancement in Sirte and Jufra, only partially settled by the UN-brokered ceasefire agreement signed by the two rival Libyan parties – that is, military representatives of the internationally recognized Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) and the administration of the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) – on October 23, 2020. It is evident that Egypt and Turkey are competitors in the hegemonic game playing out in the Mediterranean basin as both are willing to serve as regional energy hubs, and that Israel would soon be asked to pick sides.

All things considered, Israel has already done so, overtly leaning towards Egypt and Greece over Turkey. The two countries, together with Cyprus, are even considering planning an undersea pipeline directly running from Cyprus to Italy bypassing Turkey’s exclusive economic zone. Before the “Guardians of the Wall” military operation broke out, talks were underway with Egypt to upgrade the EMGF to a full-fledged regional organization with good perspectives of boosting natural gas exports directly to Europe. Israel was also portraying its close convergence on gas with Egypt and Greece as harboring positive spill-over effects over the Gazan collapsed economy, particularly regarding the establishment of a “Gaza Marine” off the coast of the Strip.

In fact, possible avenues of development for the Gaza Strip lie in close cooperation with Egypt, that is in building a broader integrated economic area merging Gaza with the equally deprived Egyptian region of North Sinai. The latter would prospectively host all the major facilities – a large international air and seaport, heavy industry sites and power infrastructures – and the former would provide those same infrastructures with high-skilled labor.

The Gaza coast

 

Both Israel and Egypt see this as a potential long-term outcome of a close trilateral cooperation over the Strip development, likely pending the demise of Hamas and the new takeover of the Strip by the Palestinian Authority any time soon. Both countries would widely benefit from the Strip’s economic stabilization, provided that the Gaza labor market is totally dependent from Israeli economic shocks and political tensions, and that the Rafah crossing is viewed as a risky smuggling point by Egyptian authorities containing periodical military upheavals in Northern Sinai. However, both Israel and Egypt are aware that the Gaza Strip development to unfold still needs basic conditions to be met, with no bearing on the near future.

Conversely, other avenues of close bilateral cooperation could develop soon. In February 2021, the Egyptian Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources, Tarek el-Molla, slyly visited Israel with the pandemic still raging, marking the first public visit of Egyptian officials in five years. Meanwhile, on March 9, 2021, the Israeli Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen returned the visit in Sharm el-Sheikh meeting with his counterpart, the Egyptian Minister Nasser Fahmi, together with a large delegation of businessmen to discuss future joint  plans stretching beyond energy issues.

Since March 2021, the national air company, Egyptian Air, resumed flights to Israel flying the national flag and tripling the daily number of connections between the two countries. Diplomatically speaking, the two countries have also exchanged services: There had been rumors that Egypt ventured to ask Israel to broker talks with Ethiopia over the Great Renaissance Dam, though to no avail, while Egypt attempted to conduct intra-Palestinian talks in Istanbul and Doha with the aim of ousting both Qatar and Turkey as potential alternative mediators in a clear attempt to please both Israel and the Biden administration. Moreover, Egypt has kept a lower profile in Israeli-Palestinian disputes so far, avoiding commenting on the recent Temple Mount clashes and covertly dispatching a delegation to broker a ceasefire with Hamas on May 12th in the Gaza operation.

Notwithstanding Israeli alignment with the Sunni axis and Egypt, Tel Aviv has an undoubted interest in keeping an open diplomatic channel to Turkey, whose regional claims in the region are of a disruptive, but non-threatening nature. INSS analysts Gallia Linderstrauss and Ofir Winter clearly highlight this point by stressing that Israel has no interest whatsoever in raising the bar of conflict with Turkey, given its NATO membership and its periodical diplomatic swings from maximalist to moderate positions in the Middle East conflict.

Since the first Israeli-Turkish rift at the Davos summit in 2009, the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, recurrent downgrading and upgrading of diplomatic bilateral relations had been the rule in foreign politics between the two countries until the last withdrawal of the Turkish ambassador after the US-Jerusalem Declaration in 2017. Recent peremptory outbursts by Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the “Muslim necessity to act” over Israeli attacks against Palestinians in the Al-Aqsa mosque compound could be explained on similar lines.

Turkish swinging moods are explained as contingent reactions aimed at breaking the country’s diplomatic isolation, but do not need to be taken too seriously as they could easily reverse to more moderate standing once the political storm subsides and attention from international public opinion is deflected. Israeli intention to keep an open channel to Turkey could be signaled by its avoidance to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day following the US move, but also to keep a dialogue going over regional issues in which Turkey and Israel are not at odds, such as rolling back Iran’s power and influence in Syria.

Moreover, the two countries found common ground in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and, economically speaking, Israeli defense industries have a stake in the Turkish market as a major buyer of Israeli weapons and Israeli energy companies see Turkey as the biggest market of oil and gas in the region. In sum, despite the person bad blood between Netanyahu and Erdogan, the two countries have not reached a breaking point, and particularly after the recent Turkish Black Sea gas discoveries, which could push Turkey to defuse tensions over gas in the Mediterranean.

Israel is the 8th world’s largest arms exporter.

 

Israel would better channel all its efforts towards containing Iran and pursuing the path of regional normalization disclosed by the Abraham Accords, rather than opening new fronts with regional partners that pose no threat, such as Turkey. In fact, the only element to hold true is that the Arab states’ normalization with Israel is there to stay and all regional countries will have to position themselves against its backdrop, including all Muslim Brotherhood-inspired actors such as Turkey, Qatar and Hamas.