There’s a new European natural gas kid on the block – Israel.
Israel’s global position is changing rapidly as the discovery of 36 trillion cubic feet of gas off its coast in the eastern Mediterranean is coming into political and public knowledge. The two main natural gas fields that are being developed and prepared for export are the Tamar and Leviathan gas fields, located near Haifa. Russia, the monopoly holder of natural gas for Europe will most certainly want to get in on the action.
Israel’s goal is not just to be energy-independent, but to become a major energy exporter. Its ultimate objective is to transport the bulk of its gas to Europe, but it aims to sell locally to the Palestinians, and to Jordan—a diversification strategy inspired, in part, by its long experience with disruptions to gas pipelines in the Sinai.
Turkey has, meanwhile, gone to great lengths to quench its thirst for energy, perhaps best epitomized by its sanction-busting purchases of Iranian gas. An energy importer with a huge account-deficit related to mismanagement in the natural-gas sector, Turkey was previously slated to be a recipient of Israel’s new gas finds and the host of the pipeline essential to European exports. However, Turkey’s foundering relationship with Israel and its longstanding territorial dispute with Cyprus over what Turkey, and only Turkey, calls the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus—land Turkey acquired by force from Cyprus in 1974—has turned the potential for collaboration and mutual advantage into a source of antagonism and possible armed conflict.
Meanwhile, Israel is engaged in a dispute with Lebanon over Jerusalem’s claim to an off-shore Exclusive Economic Zone, known as an EEZ, covering the Tamar and Leviathan fields. With U.S. mediation efforts at a standstill and Lebanon’s economy sinking into the abyss, Lebanon is poised to begin offering exploration licenses to firms that would be encroaching on what Israel claims is its territory. These two states are still in a de jure state of war, and a recent border clash left one Israeli soldier dead. If these licenses are granted and there is a breach of Israel’s EEZ, Israel could very well deem it a casus belli worthy of a military response. While the assets of the Lebanese Armed Forces are vastly inferior to those of the Israel Defense Forces, the December 2013 pledge by Saudi Arabia to provide $3 billion to upgrade the LAF’s capabilities—widely seen as an effort by the Saudis to counter the power of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia—could tip this balance of power, rendering the possibility of a large-scale confrontation more likely in the future.
With or without the cooperation or consent of the LAF, Hezbollah could seek to disrupt Israel’s off-shore venture by targeting rigs and Israeli naval patrols. Hezbollah is already in possession of Chinese C-802 anti-ship missiles and is believed to have been given Russian Yakhont missiles by Syria. These massive missiles, powered by ramjet engines and capable of reaching supersonic speeds and hitting targets up to 180 miles from shore, are a potential risk to all Israeli and Cypriot assets. Hezbollah has engaged Israel’s navy in the past with success: During the Second Lebanon War in July 2006, Hezbollah fired a missile at the INS Hanit corvette, killing four sailors and causing extensive damage. Another missile sank a nearby cargo freighter. Hezbollah’s waning support in Lebanon due to blowback from its role in Syria could push the organization to reclaim its populist role as the only resistance force capable of defending Lebanon from Israeli aggression. Fighting for Lebanese rights in the eastern Mediterranean could provide the pretext needed for Hezbollah to reestablish its credibility and raison d’être in the eyes of the Lebanese masses.
As usual, Israel has a blessing from above that all the surrounding bully’s want and there will be a fight to defend it.