As the Purim holiday arrives, many are looking forward to a break from the country’s exhausting election cycle. But for Prime Minister Netanyahu, Wednesday evening was an opportunity to reinforce his position as Israel’s leading statesmen. Hosting the 6th trilateral summit between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus, Netanyahu hoped special guest US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would deliver a strong showing of support for the embattled premier and his regional energy aspirations.
Significant regional developments have transpired since the last summit. In January 2019, Cypriot, Egyptian, Greek, Israeli, Italian, Jordanian and Palestinian Ministers of Energy met in Cairo with the intention of establishing the East Med Gas Forum, an institution for regional energy cooperation. Coincidentally, the forum’s optimism was rewarded in recent weeks as major discoveries were made off the coasts of Cyprus and Egypt. Exxon Mobil is reportedly considering future exploration in Israel’s waters.
From the outside looking in, there is much to celebrate. But the summit was scheduled (notso-coincidentally) just three weeks before Israel’s national elections. Indicted by the Attorney General and challenged by an up-and-coming party of former IDF chiefs of staff, Netanyahu is pursuing every possible avenue that guarantees his political survival. For this reason, the summit was little more than a photo op, a moment for Israel’s premier to don the costume he has become so accustomed to wearing on the international stage and to smile once more with other world leaders. The pending visit of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Netanyahu’s trip to AIPAC and the White House fit this all-too-familiar theme.
Pompeo’s support for the Israeli-Hellenic partnership shouldn’t be overlooked. The reduced presence of the US Sixth Fleet – for decades, a stabilizing security presence in the Eastern Mediterranean – coincided with increased maritime tensions across the region. In America’s place, Russia and Iran have become increasingly involved in regional affairs. Turkey, a longtime US ally and NATO member, seems shifting in a different direction as is frequently at odds with the White House. But by and large, Eastern Mediterranean states seek American engagement and leadership. Viewed in concert with Ambassador David Friedman’s presence at last December’s trilateral summit in Beer Sheba, the presence of the US deputy secretary of energy at East Med Gas Forum summit, and efforts by the US State Department in 2018 to bridge the divide between Israeli and Lebanese maritime claims, Washington is reinvesting capital in the Eastern Mediterranean – specifically through its support of developing regional alliances like the one between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus – for the first time in the Trump administration.
During the joint press statement, all four leaders spoke optimistically about the prospects of an EastMed pipeline, a potential 2,000 kilometer undersea pipeline that would run from Israel and Cyprus via Greece to Italy. “If we do this right,” Pompeo said, “we will attract the investment that will maximize these resources.” Nevertheless, current trends in the global energy market and the estimated costs of the project (7 billion euro) strongly indicate that the EastMed pipeline is more a political enterprise than a realistic export option. For the project to become a reality it requires both commercial and technical viability. The EU, currently investigating the feasibility of the project, is supportive but skeptical. Italy appears to be having second thoughts. And as of today, there is no international oil company or investor that has expressed interest in the task. As proven during the Obama years – when heavy US investment in regional energy diplomacy produced finite results –there are likely limitations to what the Trump administration can deliver.
In other words, the key to regional energy cooperation does not lie outside the Eastern Mediterranean. Efforts should be made to craft a more localized and sustainable energy policy, one that understands the limitations of the energy market and the capabilities of the involved parties. Specifically, this should manifest itself in continued partnership with Greece and Cyprus, but also with Egypt, whose existing infrastructure could service the flow of natural gas from multiple states.
Ancillary support from the US and the EU should be welcomed as a vital component to advancing a multinational framework for cooperation. In particular, continued mediation of Israeli-Lebanese and Turkish-Cypriot maritime boundary disputes, contribution to the process of incorporating the Palestinians within the regional energy network, and consultation during the development of mechanisms for regional cooperation would each play an important role in strengthening the building blocks that are currently in place. Israel’s interests are always served best when it capitalizes on American and European support, and utilizes that support in the most effective manner.
Just because the future isn’t likely to include the EastMed pipeline doesn’t mean that the Israeli-Hellenic partnership should squander the goodwill and shared interests that were forged over the course of the last decade. Energy security cooperation will remain a critical part of the trilateral relationship, and together these states can take a leading role in the future of regional energy cooperation through platforms like the East Med Gas Forum. But there are a host of other regional endeavors, including the areas of tourism, relief, cybersecurity, environmental protection, and the strengthening of democratic institutions (to name a few) that all three parties should continue to encourage as well. Committing resources in order to maximize the secondary gains of this “energy-first” relationship can provide long-term benefits well after the offshore reserves have dried up.
After six consecutive years of meetings, Pompeo’s participation at this week’s summit was a welcome blessing to the Israeli-Hellenic partnership. However, the parties must remain realistic about the opportunities for cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean and the risks of overstating their commitment to a flawed pipeline project with so many question marks. Considering the transformative progress that has been made thus far, the focus should remain on long-term, meaningful growth over short-term gains.
Gabriel Mitchell is a Policy Fellow at Mitvim – The Israel Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a doctoral candidate in Government and International Affairs at Virginia Tech University.