Over the past decade Israel has turned its gaze westwards and paid increasing attention to developments in the eastern Mediterranean. A central factor has undoubtedly been the discovery of gas fields along the coast (the first was found in 1999, and the largest fields were discovered since 2009). As a result, Israel has become more deeply aware of the importance of positioning itself in the eastern Mediterranean and promoting its relations with other countries in this theater.
The process stimulated by the gas discoveries was reinforced by other developments, principally the deterioration of Israel’s relations with Turkey under President Erdogan’s rule, and particularly following the violent clash between the Israeli military (IDF) and Turkish activists on board the Mavi Marmara as it sailed toward the Gaza coast (2010); Israel’s inability to promote collaboration along the Mediterranean coast with its Arab neighbors who do not recognize its existence – Lebanon and Syria – and Hamas, which controls Gaza; and the upheavals in Arab countries (misleadingly dubbed “the Arab Spring”), which helped undermine stability in the overall region on the one hand, but also limited threats to Israel in its immediate environment on the other hand, and enabled it to direct its attention toward the eastern Mediterranean.
The immediate candidates for improved relations in the Mediterranean region were Cyprus and Greece. Israel decided to formalize its relations with these countries by establishing a tripartite framework in 2016, a formula initiated by those countries with respect to other countries in the region. Cooperation in this framework was possible due to the shared values of liberal democracy, in addition to common geo-political interests, led by the desire to ensure security and stability in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea. In the background were the difficulties of dealing with Turkey, as well as the interest in developing and exporting the gas reserves and electricity. This tripartite collaboration progressed quickly and flourished, notwithstanding internal political changes in each of the three countries over the years.
A prominent example is the recent visit by the Israeli Foreign Minister to Greece (July 6, 2023), the first political visit at this level since the change in the Greek government the previous month. At the end of the visit, the Israeli Minister remarked on the strength of the strategic partnership between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus in a wide range of fields: energy, security (joint training and procurement), tourism, innovation, and technology. On June 20 there was also a three-way meeting of the countries’ National Security Council (NSC) heads to prepare the next summit meeting between the three heads of government in the second half of 2023.
Israel works steadily to promote cooperation with Greece and Cyprus because it serves a long list of its political, security, and economic interests. At the strategic level, it fosters support for dealing with a range of threats, and on the political level, the deeper the ties between the countries, the more they form a regional bloc that can help Israel internationally and specifically in dealing with the EU. This triangle is also the nucleus for the development of further Israeli collaboration with other entities in the Mediterranean and Europe, particularly with the support of the United States, whose representatives have participated in meetings of the tripartite group since 2018, although the Biden administration is less supportive of this framework than the Trump administration.
On security matters as well, the extensive cooperation with these two countries facilitates the formation of a joint response to threats to freedom of movement and trade in the Mediterranean, its ports, and its coastal energy infrastructures; it also gives Israel a “strategic hinterland” providing airports and seaports that are available for its use in wartime or in some other emergency; and it is a framework for joint military training exercises and counterterror collaboration (just recently a planned attack on Israelis in Cyprus was prevented) and for mutual help following natural disasters (Israel has already needed help from Greece and Cyprus to overcome wildfires). Cooperation also creates economic opportunities for Israel in the fields of commerce, tourism, science, technology, media, health, and the environment, especially on issues related to the Mediterranean Sea.
In the field of energy, Israel clearly has an interest in collaboration to ensure its continued natural gas production within its exclusive economic zone and develop a joint solution for the export of gas from the region. On the issue of energy exports, Israel is currently involved in two ambitious projects: the first and more realistic, which is now taking shape with the participation of the European Commission, is the plan to link the electricity grids of the three countries and from there to the rest of Europe via an undersea electric cable, the Euro Asia Interconnector. This will be the longest and deepest undersea cable of its kind in the world, with a length of 1,208 kilometers and a depth of 3,000 meters (at its deepest point) and in the future, could be used to transport electricity generated from renewable sources.
The second and even more ambitious project is the East Med Pipeline, whose purpose is to transport gas found in the territorial waters of Israel and Cyprus to Europe. This involves laying a gas pipeline that will pass through Cyprus to Greece and from there to Italy, some 1,300 kilometers under the sea and 600 kilometers on land, with an estimated cost of $6-7 billion. At present it appears that the chances of implementing this project are slim, although in his recent visit to Greece, Israel’s Foreign Minister claimed it is still on the agenda, only waiting for an assessment of its business feasibility. At the same time, there is a proposal for the more realistic alternative of laying a shorter pipeline under the sea between Israel and Cyprus, together with a liquefaction facility to produce LNG for export to Europe.
The gas discoveries and the formation of the Israel-Greece-Cyprus triangle have also contributed to collaboration in energy between Israel and other actors in the Mediterranean region and in Europe. Israel was a supporter of the Egypt-Greece initiative (2018) to set up the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), which now includes 8 countries (Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Italy, and France) and whose charter was approved in 2021. The United States and the European Union have also shown interest in this organization, in which they hold the status of permanent observers.
In addition, Israel currently supplies gas to two of its Arab neighbors, Jordan and Egypt, which helps to build peaceful relations with these countries. No less important is the agreement signed (in October 2022) between Israel and Lebanon on maritime borders, despite their hostile relations. The agreement was made possible by the realization in Lebanon, including within the Hezbollah terrorist organization, the senior partner for all decision making in Lebanon, that the “regional gas train” is already on the move and in their grave economic situation, offers a window of opportunity in the form of an agreement that enables gas searches to start, in Lebanese waters as well, to provide a source of income for the failing Lebanese state. The agreement, which was accompanied by threats from Hezbollah to act against Israeli gas installations, aroused political debate in Israel due to the compromises it demanded over the disputed maritime space, but in hindsight, its importance and its contribution to Israeli interests, and above all to security in the area, are clear.
In conclusion, the discovery of Israel’s maritime gas reserves has granted it energy security for many years to come, but these reserves are also an important resource at the strategic level. Turning its gaze to its western neighbors has improved Israel’s geopolitical position in its immediate environment. From a relatively isolated country in the Middle East, it has become a central partner in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin, leading to economic, political, and security gains.
At the same time, Israel continues to face serious challenges, above all, the need to consider the implications of its improving relations with Greece and Cyprus for its complex relations with Erdogan’s Turkey. This joins the security-related challenges accompanying the implementation of the agreement with Lebanon, as well as others that may derive from the possibility, once again being currently examined in Israel, of enabling the Palestinians to promote gas searches along the Gaza coast.