Opinion

Are Israel and Egypt Now in a Marriage Made on Gas?

The regional gas forum launched this week could create a real relationship after years of cold peace, but don't count on it

The old joke about how God should have instructed Moses to turn right when he reached the Sinai so the Israelites could inherit the oil riches of the Arabia Peninsula instead of left into the Promised Land is due for an update.

As we discovered 3,000 years later, the territorial waters of the Promised Land have a lot of natural gas. But, alas, we’re still in the benighted Middle East. God should have told Moses to turn left and keep going until the Israelites reached Norway, which has a lot of fossil fuels and is located in a peaceful and orderly part of the world.

Yet, could things be slowly changing for Israel?

This week’s announcement of an East Mediterranean Gas Forum certainly looks like a move in the right direction. Its mandate is limited to the issues of developing, shipping and selling the region’s growing reserves of natural gas, but energy is becoming a big business for this part of the region too. It could serve as a way of overcoming (or at least overlooking) political frictions.

The forum counts Israel as a full member alongside Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority (!) (and less dramatically, Cyprus, Greece and Italy). As Israel’s energy minister, Yuval Steinitz, told the AP at the forum’s founding conference in Cairo on Monday , “I think this is the most significant economic cooperation between Egypt and Israel since the signing of the peace treaty 40 years ago.”

We’ve been in bed with Egypt and Jordan since we signed peace deals with them, but it's been more like a series of one-night stands where each side gets what it wants when it needs it (mostly on security issues) and moves on.

If it succeeds, the forum would be more like a marriage – an ongoing, open relationship. Israel and its neighbors would be held together by a dense network of pipelines and business commitments, not only between themselves but with Europe. There has never been anything like that in all the history of Middle East peace.

In theory, the marriage should work because the economic logic of is overwhelming.

The region’s reserves may amount to a substantial 10 trillion cubic meters of technically recoverable, as-yet-undiscovered gas on top of what’s already been found in Egypt and the Levant Basin (Israel, Lebanon, Cyprus and Syria). But they are divided up across five countries and (in a testament to the region’s chronic instability) two quasi-countries (the PA and Northern Cyprus).

Except for Egypt and Turkey, no market is close to big enough to consume all that gas, but getting it to the obvious destination of Europe by pipeline is an expensive and technically complicated business. Creating a regional hub would reduce costs and rationalize the whole process to everybody’s advantage.

Baby step, maybe

Unfortunately, the new East Mediterranean Gas Forum is barely a first step. Even though they are East Mediterranean countries with either potential gas reserves or big consumers of gas, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Northern Cyprus were either not admitted to the club, or refused to join.

One Turkish analysist speculated that these outsiders might form their own North-eastern Mediterranean forum, although relations between Turkey and the Assad regime in Syria are so bad, he said, it could probably only work if the Russians represented Syria in the club.

At most, what the East Mediterranean Gas Forum shows us how the Middle East is now divided up. On the one side are the Arab states who fear Iran and Islamists, and are ready to partner with Israel in lieu of any better alternatives; on the other are countries are united behind Iran and/or unrelieved antipathy toward Israel.

It would be encouraging if the "countries united against Iran and Islamists" were embarking on a new era where politics and tribal hatreds were put behind, in favor of cooperation based on shared economic interests, but we’re still a long way from there.

The gas forum is a top-down initiative, driven by the realpolitik of leaders like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. He is keen on security cooperation with Israel and on developing Egypt’s energy reserves, with the barely disguised intention of making sure Egypt is in effect the regional energy tsar.

Fair enough, Egypt has the biggest reserves of any of the East Mediterranean countries, it hosts the region’s only liquefied natural gas plants that can turn the gas into an exportable product and is also the region’s biggest consumer. There’s no reason why Israel, which has to cope with environmental opposition to energy development and would better devote itself to high-tech, can’t cede leadership.

The problem with Egypt (and with Jordan and the PA as well) is that from the bottom-up, Israel is still regarded as persona non grata .

As Haisam Hassanein of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy notes, there is no travel between the two countries and no business dealings to speak of. The Egyptian government engages in anti-Israel rhetoric and the public is reminded, in the form of street names and public holidays, more about past wars with Israel than the current peace.  

In that respect, Steinitz inadvertently stumbled on the problem when he referred to the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. It’s been a cold peace the last 40 years. Israel is lucky to have a strongman like Sissi for now who wants to work with Israel, but that is far away from having a friendly neighbor. Gas alone isn’t going to warm it up.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.
Amr Nabil,AP