With All Eyes on Trump on Iran Deal, Netanyahu Takes Off for Gas Summit in Cyprus

Netanyahu's Cyprus trip will be cut short so he's in Israel during Trump's Iran deal announcement ■ Netanyahu will fly to Russia on Wednesday for talks with Putin

FILE PHOTO: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Meged Gozani

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took off Tuesday for a summit with the leaders of Greece and Cyprus, hours ahead of Washington’s possible withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal and a day before a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

Before departing, when asked about what he forsaw as U.S. President Donald Trump's decision regarding Iran, expected later today, Netanyahu said: "I suggest we all wait until 21:00 (Israel time), that's not too long now." 

Following Tuesday’s meeting in Nicosia, Netanyahu will come back to Israel before meeting with Putin on Wednesday in Moscow. Netanyahu left Israel early Tuesday, and will return at around noon to be in Israel for Trump’s announcement.

>> Donald Trump is about to put Israel in immediate danger | Opinion ■ Explained: Where Israel’s leaders stand on the Iran nuclear deal >>

Trump has threatened to withdraw from the deal, which provided Iran with relief from sanctions in exchange for limiting its uranium enrichment capacity.

Iran deal

After Trump tweeted Monday that he would make his announcement Tuesday, Netanyahu abbreviated his planned stay in Cyprus. This  suggests he may not have known that Trump would be making his announcement Tuesday.

Trump said in mid-January that the United States would withdraw from the Iran deal in 120 days unless its European allies agreed to “fix” it to encompass Iran’s ballistic-missile program, step up inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency and extend its duration indefinitely.

Regional tensions

Netanyahu’s meeting with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Cypriot Prime Minister Nicos Anastasiades will be the fourth between the countries since the three-way forum was established in 2016 to advance common interests, mainly in security and energy.

The meeting will take place in the shadow of tensions between Israel and Turkey regarding the Gaza crisis, and the historical tensions between Turkey and Cyprus – which are being exacerbated by disagreements over the offshore natural gas fields found in the Mediterranean.

Israel, Greece and Cyprus have been considering building a gas pipeline from Israel to Western Europe, an ambitious project whose feasibility experts question. At the start of the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday, Netanyahu said the feasibility of laying the pipeline would be his main concern in Tuesday’s talks.

The construction of a pipeline would cost tens of billions of shekels.

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras outside the presidential palace in Nicosia, Cyprus, January 28, 2016.
\ REUTERS

Relations between the three countries have been warming in recent years as relations between Israel and Turkey have cooled.

>> From doomsday to delay: 5 scenarios ahead of Trump’s decision on the Iran nuclear deal ■ Why does Europe still have faith in Iran, a serial cheat and liar? ■ Why Iran's Revolutionary Guards want Trump to cancel the Iran nuclear deal

Israel and Cyprus both have major gas reserves in the Mediterranean and want to export at least some of the product to Europe. The gas would pass through their strategically located ally Greece. After years of sending feelers, Israel signed a memorandum of understanding last year on building export infrastructure. Now comes the stage of feasibility studies.

The improved relations between Israel and Greece have been driven mainly by security and economic considerations, mainly the gas. The two countries also carry out joint military exercises, sometimes including – according to foreign press reports – Arab countries.

Greece, however, has been softening its position on the Palestinian issue in international institutions.

Iranian gas

Israel and Cyprus both have good relations with Egypt, and both intend to export gas through a different pipeline project that is considered more feasible.

The Israeli gas partnerships Tamar and Leviathan, which are owned by Israel’s Delek and U.S. company Noble Energy, have signed a contract with the Egyptian company Dolphinus. So has the Cypriot gas reserve Aphrodite, in which the same companies are partners. Thus if pipelines to Egypt are to be built, the countries will have to cooperate closely.

Recently the U.S. Navy was forced to protect Exxon ships exploring for gas off Cyprus after Turkish warships blocked explorations for natural gas.

Exxon and a Qatari government oil company are among the foreign energy companies that have signed exploration and production agreements with Cyprus, triggering warnings by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey says the drilling violates Turkish-Cypriot rights to the island’s natural resources. The Cypriot government says the revenues would be shared equally after the island’s unification.

Israel and Cyprus have also been discussing gas fields believed to span the territorial waters of both countries.

As drilling efforts in the Mediterranean proceed, Russia is grappling with the lower prices for its natural gas. The Europeans’ desire for a pipeline from Israel is also linked to their desire to reduce dependence on Russia.

Meanwhile Iranian gas – a market into which Russia is entering – is perennially under the threat of sanctions by the Trump administration. Russia is therefore politically sensitive about natural gas as it builds up its forces in Syria.

Netanyahu’s and Putin’s Wednesday meeting at the Kremlin will follow their participation in the annual parade marking the victory over Nazi Germany. The two are expected to discuss regional developments in the shadow of the rising tensions on Israel’s northern border.

At the start of the week, Putin and Netanyahu spoke by phone about the intelligence on the Iranian nuclear program that Netanyahu presented last week. Since that exposé, representatives of intelligence agencies from Britain, France and Germany have visited Israel to hear about the material Israel obtained.

The Wednesday meeting will be the second between Netanyahu and Putin this year and the seventh in two years. The two also frequently speak by phone. At the start of the month, Putin urged Netanyahu not to take any action that would “destabilize Syria and threaten its security.”

The Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu repeated that Israel would not let Iran establish a military presence in Syria.

In January, the two met in Moscow. A diplomatic source says the meeting included a conversation in which Netanyahu described Iran’s efforts in Lebanon, including an attempt to build a factory making advanced guided missiles.

On Sunday, Netanyahu commented that “all our meetings are important, but this week’s is especially important given Iran’s attempts to establish itself in Syria.” He said Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were moving guided missiles into Syria in order to hit Israel and its fighter planes.

Netanyahu also said it was better to confront Iran sooner rather than later if necessary.

“Better now than later,” he said. “Nations that were unprepared to take timely action against murderous aggression paid much heavier prices afterwards. We do not want escalation, but we are prepared for any scenario.”