Steinitz's EastMed gas pipeline stirring up regional conflict

Yuval Steinitz

The European pipeline project initiated by the Israeli Energy Minister is provoking regional tension after Turkey claims economic waters to thwart it, angering Egypt, Cyprus and Greece.

Will Israel be dragged into a regional conflict developing in the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and Cyprus? Israeli sources sought to make it clear that Israel had no desire for a conflict with Turkey over the issue of the economic waters in the region.

Turkey instigated the current escalation by claiming extensive maritime territories as its exclusive economic waters. The international community recognizes these areas as belonging to Greece and Cyprus.

The Turkish measures were interpreted as being aimed at thwarting the Poseidon project - construction of the undersea EastMed pipeline from the natural gas reservoirs of Israel, Egypt, and Cyprus to southern Italy. Minister of National Infrastructure, Energy, and Water Resources Dr. Yuval Steinitz is regarded as the proponent of the idea and the supporter and promoter of the venture, although there are major questions about its economic and engineering feasibility.

The Israeli government has yet to respond to Turkey's maritime annexation. Two weeks ago, however, government sources said that the gas pipeline project would soon begin.

Turkey's actions: Extension of the economic border

On December 11, Turkey notifed the UN that it was seeking to register the maritime border between the economic areas of Turkey, Libya, and Egypt as set in the agreement between Turkey and Libya. The new borderline passes through the Mediterranean Sea southward to Cyprus, and in effect annexes the entire sea area between Cyprus and Crete to Turkey's exclusive economic zone.

Turkey made it clear that once it had reached agreement with Libya, any activity by any other country in its exclusive economic zone would require its consent. Turkey also warned that it would use military force against any oil and gas exploration in the area around Cyprus.

Turkey's actions did not occur overnight; it began in late November with the signing of the agreement with the Muslim Brotherhood government in Tripoli, a government not recognized by Western countries. In a lightning-fast bit of legislation on December 5, the Turkish parliament approved the agreement, which thereby became Turkish law.

Responses to Turkey: General anger

Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus declared that the agreement between Turkey and the government in Tripoli was completely invalid and contrary to international law. Greece announced that it was expelling the Libyan ambassador from Athens. Egypt and Greece decided to expedite the talks between them for signing an agreement dividing the maritime zones between them. Greece filed a complaint about Turkey's action with the UN Security Council.

Attention is now shifting to the European Union (EU). According to "The New York Times," EU ministers discussed late last week a draft announcement severely condemning Turkey's action.

Background to the dispute: An increase in Egyptian power

"Turkey, which regards itself as a hub for the transition of energy from Asia, has been losing its status to Egypt in recent years," says independent energy consultant Gina Cohen. Among other things, Cohen cites the signing of an inter-governmental agreement to export gas from Cyprus and Egypt; the signing of agreements between commercial companies to export gas from Israeli reservoirs Tamar and Leviathan to Egypt; and the establishment of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, with participation from all the countries in the region except for Turkey and Lebanon.

Price of the dispute: An expensive and difficult to execute project

The plan, Steinitz's pet project, is to lay an undersea pipeline for exporting gas from the reservoirs in Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt to Italy. The EU supports the project, and has also agreed to finance feasibility tests. Statements recently appeared in Israeli media that the project was about to get underway, but the situation is rife with large question marks about its practicality.

In order for the Poseidon project to begin, almost unsurmountable engineering, economic, environmental, and political obstacles must be overcome. The proposed pipeline will be the longest of its type in the world. The planned route from Cyprus via Crete to Italy passes through deep waters where it has hitherto been impossible to lay an undersea pipeline. The project's cost is estimated at $7 billion or more, meaning that it is not worthwhile at the gas prices currently prevailing in Europe.

Since the plan is for commercial companies to construct the pipeline, it is unclear how the project can be financed without gas agreements with anchor customers in Europe. Another focus of opposition that has recently developed is environmental. Opposition to the continued use of gas because of its contribution to global warming has been growing in Europe. David Kornbluth, an expert on energy law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says that even without the recent Turkish declaration, there is no real possibility of laying the pipeline without Turkish consent, because of the proximity of the Turkish coast. In addition to Turkey, Russia opposes the project because it wants to ensure the continued dependence of European countries on Russian gas.

Israel's position: Keep a low profile

Israel is trying to keep a low profile. Government sources told "Globes," "Israel has no conflict with Turkey. The gas pipeline project is a strategically important project for Europe, and is also important for Israel. We have excellent cooperation with Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt, among other things concerning the gas project, and we'll be glad if Turkey also wants to take part in it."

Israel's interest in avoiding being dragged into a conflict is clear: such a conflict will jeopardize Israel's maritime trade routes. This is a difficult problem, given that an absolute majority of Israel's incoming and outgoing trade passes through the Mediterranean Sea. "Israel must weigh its steps in this conflict with great caution," Kornbluth says.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on December 15, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

Yuval Steinitz
Yuval Steinitz
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