Amid Turkey Tensions: Israel, Greece and Cyprus Advance Talks on Gas Pipeline to Europe

The proposed pipeline would run from Israel to Cyprus and on to Greece; the leaders of the three countries discussed a summit potentially slated for May

An Israeli gas platform west of Israel's port city of Ashdod
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

The leaders of Israel, Greece and Cyprus discussed a proposed joint project for a natural gas pipeline to Western Europe. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades on Wednesday.

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The proposed pipeline would run from Israel to Europe via Cyprus and Greece. The three also discussed a new date for a summit that was recently postponed due to voting in the Knesset and is currently slated for May.

The talks take place amid growing tensions between Turkey and Israel over events in the Gaza Strip, and between Turkey and Cyprus over offshore drilling.

Israel, Greece and Cyprus have been been growing closer in the last few years, especially in the fields of security and energy. However, some of the cooperation among them has been kept quiet due to the political tensions in the region.

Israel and Cyprus have large gas reserves in their territorial waters and a desire to export gas to Europe together with Cyprus’ close ally, Greece, whose location is a strategic transit stop. Israel reported some of the largest gas finds in the past decade and Cyprus has confirmed a discovery, making them both potential exporters.

After years of overtures, Israel signed a memorandum of understanding in December with Cyprus, Greece and Italy to advance the project, estimated to be worth tens of billions of shekels.

Israel and Greece's relationship has recently been upgraded, mainly due to security and economic considerations, first and foremost among them the gas resources. The countries have been holding joint military drills and according to foreign reports, Greece has been softening its position on the Palestinian issue in international bodies.

Israel and Cyprus have numerous shared regional interests, including the security situation in Syria and Lebanon and complicated relations with Turkey. Both countries have good relations with Egypt, where they plan to export gas as well.

The Israeli gas giants Delek and Noble Energy, which operate the Leviathan and Tamar gas fields, have signed a contract with the Egyptian company Delphinus. Noble also has a deal with the Cypriot Aphrodite offshore gas field. If pipelines are laid down in Egypt, these countries will work in close cooperation.

The American Navy recently had to secure vessels belonging to the American oil giant Exxon, which were looking for gas off of Cyprus' shores, after Turkish warships tried to stop them from doing so.

Exxon and Qatar Petroleum, the country's state-owned oil company, are among the foreign energy firms that signed drilling and production contracts with Cyprus. Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan warned those companies “not to cross the line” in the past, claiming that the drilling activity was infringing on the Cypriot Turks’ rights to natural resources on the island. Cyprus says the income will be divided equally after the island is united.

Israel and Cyprus are also discussing the gas fields apparently located in both states’ territorial waters.

Europe’s desire for a pipeline is linked to its will to reduce dependence on Russia, which can compete with lower gas prices. At the same time the Iranian gas market, which Russia is entering, is under constant threat of sanctions by the Trump administration.

Reports of the potential deal between Israel, Cyprus and Greece first emerged in January 2016 when Netanyahu told reporters in Cyprus that groups of specialists would be appointed to assess the pipeline idea.

The Shell corporation announced earlier on Wednesday that it was extracting itself from the Gaza marine gas field owned by the Palestinian Authority. The field has been left undeveloped in the last two decades, since British Gas ([purchased by Shell) entered into a partnership with it.