Opinion

The Turkish Bully Is Threatening the Mediterranean Energy Bonanza

Almost nobody noticed when Turkey chased an Israeli ship out of Cypriot waters two weeks ago, but it indicates how Erdogan is trying to force a change of the rules

An aerial view of the SSCV Thialf crane vessel laying the newly-arrived foundation platform for the Leviathan natural gas field in the Mediterranean Sea, of the coast of Haifa, January 31, 2019.
Marc Israel SELLEM / POOL / AFP

There’s been some big, good news and some little, bad news in the last several days about the future of Israeli energy. The big, good news is that nine long years after was it was first discovered at the Leviathan field, its gas will start reaching customers by the end of the month.

That will mark the beginning of a new era of Israeli gas exports and its emergence as a regional energy power. The exported gas will initially be going to Egypt and Jordan, making it by far the most important economic link between us and the Arab world, and it may one day even reach Europe. But Leviathan isn’t just about money or power politics.

As evidenced by the East Mediterranean Gas Forum -- a club formed this year that includes Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Cyprus and Greece -- natural gas holds out the promise of cooperation and mutual gain that is all too rare in the Middle East. If everything works the way it’s supposed to, a network of pipelines will arise that creates a web of economic interdependence. 

But the little, bad news demonstrates how easily the whole thing could be undone.

As reported by Israel’s Channel 13 television on Sunday, the Israeli energy research vessel Bat Galim was ordered out of Cypriot territorial waters by a Turkish warship even though it had Cyprus’ permission to be there. The incident was considered so minor that it took two weeks to surface in the media and got little attention when it did.

But the Bat Galim incident is as serious a business as Leviathan’s starting production. All the potential represented by the gas forum is under threat from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his crude policy of threats, harassment and legal blunderbuss aimed at restructuring the emerging East Mediterranean energy order in its favor.

Cyprus has been the main target of Erdogan’s aggression, which seeks to hem is the island country’s ability to exploit its gas reserves through a maze of legal fictions. The first one is that Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus is an independent state, although no one besides Turkey recognizes it. As Ankara seems to interpret it, Turkish Northern Cyprus has the right to invite Turkey to explore for gas in its waters but the Greek Cyprus can only do so in theirs once there’s an agreement on sharing gas revenues with Northern Cyprus.

The second legal fiction is Turkey’s claims as to the size of its exclusive economic zone, the waters in which a country has sole rights to fishing, mining and drilling. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, those extend 212 miles from a country’s coastline, except in cases where the distance between two countries is less, in which case they have to negotiate a deal.

Turkey has refused to sign the convention and instead is implementing its own rules, which very conveniently for itself stretch its EEZ halfway across the Mediterranean, under Turkey’s self-serving legal reasoning, the EEZs assigned to Cyprus and Greece are tiny.

No other country recognizes Turkey’s claims, except North Cyprus and as of this month Libya, or more precisely Libya’s rump government. As part of the military pact it signed with the Government of National Reconciliation in Tripoli, it now has signed on one more quasi-country to acknowledge Turkey’s claims.

All of this could be dismissed as so much empty legal posturing, except that Turkey has engaged in low-level gunboat diplomacy to enforce. It has sent drill-ships festooned with the colors of the Turkish flag and provocatively named for conquering heroes of the Ottoman-era into Cyprus’ EEZ. More seriously, it has interrupted drilling by foreign companies in the Cypriot EEZ. The Italian energy company ENI, whose vessel was blocked by Turkish warships in 2018, was so intimidated its CEO announced it would no longer operate in the area if Turkish warships appear.

Turkey’s EEZ claims don’t affect Israel directly, but by opposing any deals involving Cyprus, they threaten the East Mediterranean gas regime. That includes veto rights on plans for a pipeline to deliver Israeli and Cypriot gas to the giant European market on the grounds it will run through Turkey’s super-sized EEZ.

What’s Erdogan up to? One commentator suggests that since Turkey hasn’t found any oil or gas in its internationally recognized EEZ, it’s decided to make it bigger. Or, it’s Erdogan’s ambition to turn Turkey into a regional super-power and his predilection for conflict over cooperation that explain his attitude.

Rather than reach a compromise with Cyprus and join the gas forum, he’d rather bully everyone into his vision of what the East Mediterranean energy regime should look like, namely one with Turkey calling the shots. He has the tools to get his way Turkey’s location between the East Mediterranean and Europe, his willingness to violate the rules, Turkey’s NATO membership and, for now at least, the undying friendship of Donald Trump.

The gas forum countries should respond to Erdogan’s intimidation by working even more closely to protect what is indisputably a vital economic interest. As cynical as it is, there’s nothing like a common enemy to bring countries together. In the end, that might be the Turkish leader’s great contribution to regional energy development.