21/12/2019 – Turkey was at the center of some head-spinning developments in the Eastern Mediterranean in the last few days.
In fact, the world and especially the riparian states are closely following these “events,” which could also be named “belated decisions from Turkey. »
One of these states is Israel, which has been for a long time looking for ways to transport to Europe the natural gas that will be gathered from the hydrocarbon fields in the Eastern Mediterranean.
After a long period of political distance, Turkey and Israel signed a normalization deal in June 2016 to cooperate on a pipeline project, to transfer natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe through Turkey, due to the requirements of the political conjuncture.
However, the coup attempt on July 15 right after the deal prevented the relations to recover right away. After a couple of months of a convalescent period, meetings between committees began and the governments agreed to the construction of the pipelines in principle. Though the constraints proposed by the Israeli government regarding the selling of natural gas to third party states and the worries regarding the financing of the project prolonged the process, the political will needed to overcome these obstacles.
Yet in the following months, completion of the project was rendered impossible due to the Greek Cypriot and Egyptian governments’ unwillingness to collaborate with Turkey, the efforts to solve the Cyprus problem failing, the United States’ decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Turkey’s reaction to the decision, and especially the Israeli government’s overreaction to the Great March of Return demonstrations.
Turkey-Israel relations were further strained as the leaders continued clashing with each other and Israel’s ambassador to Turkey was “expelled” following the killing of 60 Palestinians on the Gaza border.
The Israeli government seems to have realized that it has no choice but to head back to the negotiation table with Turkey due to the active and multi-layered foreign policies carried out by the Turkish government and its sheer power on the field.
However, it was observed that many of the countries in the Eastern Mediterranean including Egypt, Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration, led by Israel, were looking after their own interests in this period.
It’s likely that these countries thought that Turkey would run out of its energy resources and not be able to defend its own interests in the Eastern Mediterranean due to the threats Turkey had to face because of the Syrian civil war. In addition, these countries were eager to take advantage of the Turkish economy suffering due to the economic operations against it starting in the summer of 2018. They set imaginary Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) boundaries, way beyond their shares, on their one-sided maps of the region with support from the EU and the U.S., shrinking Turkish zones all the way to the shores.
One of the most remarkable of developments was the formation of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) in Cairo in January 2019. Turkey, Syria and Lebanon not being included drew attention while countries like Egypt, Israel, Greece, Palestine and the Greek Cypriot administration were included in the forum. While the Minister of Petroleum of Egypt, Tarek al-Mala, said the forum is open to other riparian states in his opening speech, Israeli news sources stated that the forum is an anti-Turkey initiative and its goal is to inhibit the Republic of Turkey’s impact in the region.
However, the improvements in the Syrian border in the following period, thanks to cross-border operations conducted by the Turkish army and the agreements signed between Turkey and the U.S. and Russia, once again brought attention to the Eastern Mediterranean region.
In fact, while working on creating a safe zone at the Syrian border, Turkey was continuing its seismic exploration and drilling activities by being present in the region via its Navy members.
Turkey was making it harder for foreign energy firms to work in the region using drilling licenses given by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and did not recognize the one-sided EEZ boundary declarations by the Greek Cypriot administration. In addition, one can read the Italian energy company, “ENI,” suspending its drilling activities under the excuse of “tension” in the region as a result of precautions taken by Turkey.
Turkey’s insistent calls for negotiations not getting appropriate responses from other countries in the region caused the game to get more serious.
Turkey decided to be present in the Eastern Mediterranean and defend its rights stemming from international law at any cost. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “You can’t be at the table unless you are on the field.”
As a result, the Turkey-Libya Maritime Boundary Delimitation Agreement was signed Nov. 27 after long-standing meetings with Libya’s UN-recognized Government of National Accord. With this agreement, the maritime boundaries between Turkey and Libya were set and a possible Greece-Greek Cypriot administration and Greece-Egypt deal was rendered meaningless.
In addition, this agreement makes it impossible for the completion of the Eastern Mediterranean Pipeline Project, which was planning to transport Eastern Mediterranean gas belonging mainly to Israel and also to Egypt, Cyprus island and Greece, to Europe without crossing Turkish maritime zones, since Turkey would also have to agree to the transportation. Naturally, these countries will have to find other alternatives or get the permission of Turkey for the line to pass through Turkish maritime zones, which likely would not be given since there will be shorter and more profitable paths for Turkey which go through itself.
Though part of the EMGF, it was known that Egypt was not very enthusiastic about the pipeline project because it suggested that it would be more suitable for the natural gas to be transported using Egypt’s own liquid natural gas (LNG) facilities’ tankers instead of a pipeline. Israel on the other hand, did not want the whole transport to be attributed to Egypt, blaming instabilities in Egypt. While Greece and Greek Cypriot administration objected to using the path through Turkey, there have not been any tangible steps taken, which seems to push Israel to think more rationally.
The shift in Israel’s views can be recognized from some of the stories published in Israeli media before the Turkey-Libya deal.
It was reported that, while the exact information regarding the field was not published, the Israeli research vessel, Bat Galim, had to leave the region with parcel number 12 following warnings from a Turkish battleship Nov. 19, in articles published last week in Israeli media.
The timing of the news is more eye-catching than the content, however, since this is exactly when the Turkey-Libya deal was announced following the termination of the Israel’s partnering firms’ activities in the Aphrodite gas field under the excuse of disagreements between Turkey and the Greek Cypriot administration. These observations suggest that certain assumptions (toward keeping Turkey out of the game) are starting to change.
More interestingly, stories regarding “the Turkish and Israeli authorities being ready for cooperating with each other on the pipeline project” came out while the parties were still trying to figure out what was happening.
While corrections such as “Turkey requested a meeting with Israel first” were made by the Israeli media, Turkish press confirmed the developments from Israeli foreign affairs. The Israeli government seems to have realized they have no choice but to head back to the negotiation table with Turkey due to the active and multi-layered foreign policies carried out by the Turkish government and its sheer power on the field.
It’s observed that the Turkey-Libya deal had a triggering effect for the riparian states. In addition, Turkey asserting it will be defending its rights in the region at any cost and highlighting it might resort to hard power if necessary, seems to have affected riparian states’ positions on the maritime boundaries issue.
How Turkey and Israel collaborating on the pipeline project will affect the future of the EMGF remains a big question. It was meaningless for a forum claiming to be based on collaboration to exclude three riparian states anyway. The new situation enforces the inclusion of Turkey in an organization which is fundamentally against Turkey, and it should not be too hard to predict how participants, except for Israel, will react.
It will be necessary for these countries to either remove their reservoirs and include all riparian states in the forum or to create a new forum where countries who do not want to collaborate with Turkey will be excluded.
Since the developments are very fresh, it is too soon to predict how these countries will react.
However, the Turkish-Israeli relations in the following period and the potential opportunities that might arise after will be a good starting point for future projections. In contrast, it’s absolutely certain that the new diplomatic process will be a more rational one for all shareholders.
Yeni Safaq / Haydar Oruc is a Levant Studies expert at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (ORSAM)