In September, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, fired the latest salvo in the Eastern Mediterranean stand-off. “Those who think that the natural riches of the island of Cyprus and the region belong only to themselves will face the determination of Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the future, as they do today,” he warned.
The “natural riches” he referred to are the gas fields of the Eastern Mediterranean. Their discovery a decade ago prompted some unexpected alliances and the disintegration of long-established relations between Turkey and Israel. Suddenly viewing itself as a major energy producer, Israel actively sought a closer alliance with Eastern Mediterranean neighbors Cyprus and Greece. The three countries signed export contracts and agreements and in March pledged greater cooperation on regional energy security.
Meanwhile, Turkish-Israeli relations soured in 2010 with the Mavi Marmara incident, in which nine people died trying to stop Israeli commandos boarding a Turkish-owned ship carrying aid to Gaza. In 2016, however, both sides agreed to reset the relationship and even began negotiating terms for exporting gas from the Leviathan field, which holds an estimated 500-800 billion cubic meters of gas, to Turkey via a new major pipeline. But talks broke down, ostensibly over prices and supply routes but in reality because of the enduring mutual hostility between the Benjamin Netanyahu and Erdogan governments over Gaza.
The alliance between Israel, Greece and Cyprus has thrown up another serious point of contention: the status of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a country that came into being in 1974 but which remains recognized by no other state apart from Turkey. By contrast, the Republic of Cyprus in the south of the island is a member of the European Union. Turks of all political persuasions perceive this as an injustice toward the TRNC.
Negotiations to resolve the conflict have repeatedly stalled. Turkey objects to the exclusive economic zone claimed unilaterally by Cyprus, and argues that the TRNC has the same energy exploration rights as the Greek half of the island, whose government has offered grants to international companies to drill in its waters. The Turkish Cypriot authorities have also licensed offshore exploration for two Turkish drilling ships and last year the Turkish navy chased away an Italian vessel that was drilling in what Ankara views as Turkish Cypriot waters.
Against this backdrop, the chances of reviving energy cooperation between Turkey and Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean appear slim, but there are other factors that neither side can ignore in the long run.
Firstly, Israel badly needs a way to export its natural gas. Investors are reluctant to commit to an EastMed pipeline through Cyprus and Greece that is both costly, at $7 billion, and technically complex. Lebanon also objects to the proposed EastMed pipeline route because it would cut across a 330-square mile area of sea that is part of a maritime border dispute with Israel.
The more realistic option is for Israel to send gas to Egyptian liquefied natural gas facilities, and a $15 billion agreement to do so was signed in 2018. However, Egypt has made its own major hydrocarbon discoveries and now wants to protect its own competitiveness. Escalating security concerns in the Sinai Peninsula have further delayed progress.
The most feasible alternative now is Turkey, the only country capable of storing large volumes of gas from the Leviathan field and transporting it to Europe, according to John V. Bowlus of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. Negotiating long-term rates for gas from Israel would also be more economical for Turkey than relying on LNG bought on the spot market from the US and Qatar. Turkey also very much wants to avoid losing out to Egypt as a major regional energy hub.
Secondly (and an important consideration from Turkey’s point of view), Israel has avoided taking a strong position on the political future of Cyprus or the reunification of the island. That remains Israeli policy, which keeps the door open for new talks with Turkey on energy cooperation, although this could change with a new government in Tel Aviv.
Finally, faced with pressure from pro-Cyprus European states, Turkey could turn to Russia for help. Ankara has already floated the idea of an Eastern Mediterranean Energy Forum in partnership with Lebanon, Libya and Syria, with Russia as an observer. Russia has also long hankered after a share in Israeli gas. With long-standing links of its own to Moscow, Israel may see an offer to produce gas jointly as a pragmatic move. Another possible game-changer lies in the gas potential in Syria’s territorial waters, where Russia has a foothold, with implications for both Israel and Turkey.
None of this is to understate the obstacles blocking Turkish-Israeli rapprochement. For one thing, with Israel assuming leadership in regional gas production, why would its policymakers rush to include Turkey in the new economic and political network they are trying to build?
However, Israeli foreign policymakers also regret losing Turkey as a long-standing and important ally in keeping regional instability in check. But before any fences can be mended sufficiently to make energy cooperation a possibility, the two nations must rebuild political trust and revive the pragmatism that has long been the hallmark of their relationship.
Burcu Ozcelik is a research fellow at Cambridge University.