Gas forum a diplomatic opportunity for Israel

Dr. Nimrod Goren February 2020

A new international organization was born in the Mediterranean on January 15. In parallel to the joint statement by the Israeli and Egyptian energy ministers on the start of Israeli gas exports to Egypt, representatives from Israel, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority (PA), Jordan, Italy, Greece and Cyprus met in Cairo. They decided to institutionalize the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) – launched a year ago – turn it into a recognized international organization. France has also requested to join.

Given the protracted freeze of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and growing tensions generated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s annexation intentions, the Israeli and Palestinian willingness to jointly participate in establishing a new organization is a bright spot not to be taken for granted. The fact that the EMGF includes European and Arab states as full members, as well as the US, EU and other international organizations (such as the World Bank) as observers, further highlights the unique nature of this development.

The underpinning of the new organization is economic, with its members seeking to cooperate in maximizing the energy reserves discovered in the Mediterranean over the past decade. Israel is generally deterred by international groupings, fearing members’ pressure regarding its policy on the Palestinian issue. However, although it initially preferred that the gas forum remain a non-binding body, Israel eventually agreed to its institutional upgrading, probably at Egypt’s behest.

While Israel, Greece, Cyprus and Italy are discussing the construction of a gas pipeline from Israel to Europe – a project whose economic, technical and diplomatic feasibility is highly doubtful – the new organization positions Egypt as a regional energy hub with its gas liquefaction facilities that enable gas exports to Europe without a pipeline.

The make-up of the current forum is unique, but need not be finite. Lebanon and Turkey are two important regional players currently absent from the EMGF due to disputes and confrontations with forum members. However, in order to realize the cooperation potential in the Eastern Mediterranean, the organization should seek to draw them into its ranks in the future. The UN, too, which plays a role in mediation tasks in the Mediterranean region – between Israel and Hamas, Greek and Turkish Cypriots, and Israel and Lebanon in marking their maritime borders – could also be represented as an observer.

The organization has diplomatic, not just economic, potential, including to support Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts. In recent years, no multinational organizations have been active in this regard. Under the Trump administration, the Quartet (the US, EU, Russia and the UN) lost whatever limited importance it had beforehand.

French-led efforts to set up an international support group for the peace process were unsuccessful. The absence of an influential multinational body makes it difficult for the international community, for example, to implement its plan to introduce a coordinated package of political and economic incentives for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The EMGF could be an asset for a new Israeli leadership wanting to re-start the peace process and striving to link regional ties to the Palestinian issue. Until such time, and beyond constituting an additional channel to the PA, the new organization could advance Israeli peace ties with Egypt and Jordan.

ISRAELI GAS exports to Egypt and the visits by Israel’s energy minister to Cairo for meetings of the forum are already making a difference in relations. Nonetheless, Israel does not have an ambassador in Cairo, even though the foreign minister approved the appointment of Amira Oron to the post about a year-and-a-half ago. The government has repeatedly avoided approving the appointment and fixing this should be a high priority for the next government.

As for ties with Jordan, cooperation on the gas issue has yet to generate a positive momentum in the relationship. Instead, it has been met with public and political protests in Jordan against the backdrop of the harsh crisis of trust between the two. Jordan’s King Abdullah recently declared that the relationship was at its lowest ebb, and clearly, only a change in Israeli policy on the Palestinian issue as well as prioritizing the rehabilitation of links with Jordan could change that.

Benny Gantz has already issued messages in that direction when he addressed a ceremony in Naharayim marking the 25th anniversary of the peace treaty. The new organization could also help improve Israel’s relations with the EU following several tense years.

The EMGF links Israel and European states in a manner that has won EU approval and that is not viewed in Brussels as a move designed to split and weaken the EU – unlike the alliance Netanyahu forged with the Visegrad Group, especially Hungary. The participation of France in the new organization can also assist – given a new Israeli leadership – to overcome obstacles that prevent the renewal of the high-level political dialogue between Israel and the EU (the Association Council).

For Israel to effectively make the most of the opportunity provided by the new organization, it must learn the lessons of its conduct in other regional and international organizations. Budgetary difficulties – coupled with a general skepticism towards such organizations – limited Israel’s ability to take full advantage of similar opportunities in the past.

For example, Israel held the position of deputy general secretary of the Union for the Mediterranean, which it gave up due, also due to its Foreign Ministry’s financial crisis. Israel also has financial debt to the UN, which casts a shadow over its activity there.

Strengthening the Foreign Ministry can help resolve such issues and realize the potential of Israeli membership in the EMGF. It is the Foreign Ministry that should play a leading role when it comes to Israeli participation in international organizations, unlike the current situation with the EMGF in which it is the Energy Ministry that is mostly in charge.

The establishment of the new organization in the Mediterranean is more than just an important economic development. It is also a diplomatic opportunity for Israel. The next Israeli government would do well to leverage the EMGF not only for the economic profit it can generate from the country’s gas reserves, but also for diplomatic gains that advance Israeli-Palestinian peace and broader regional cooperation.

The writer is the founder and head of Mitvim-The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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