The Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, launched in mid-January in Cairo, features a development of political importance which is a direct result of the natural gas discoveries in the region in recent years. The forum includes seven members – Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Jordan, Italy and the Palestinian Authority – and is guided by a set of principles that the member countries should respect. For example, they undertake to respect the rights to natural resources of each other and adhere to international law, to expand their cooperation towards formulating a common policy regarding the development of a regional market, and to protect the environment.
It was also decided that the forum is open to accept additional countries, insofar as they accept the its governing rules. Obviously, the message addresses the two absentees from the forum – Turkey, which sees the new forum as a confrontational act (considering that some of the member countries are in various levels of conflict with Turkey); and Lebanon, which presumably could not allow itself to participate in a forum that also includes Israel, even though potentially natural gas (and possibly oil) could be found in its economic waters as well. The presence of the US Deputy Secretary of Energy at the Cairo meeting was important, as it could be interpreted as American support of the new forum and of the cooperation that is taking shape in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The main beneficiaries of the new forum are of course the seven members. However, some countries are expected to benefit from it in particular:
Egypt: The kick-off meeting was held in Cairo. Egypt will serve as the Chair of the forum and will also host its headquarters. Thus, Egypt has established its central geo-strategic standing in the region, both as an energy producer (with known reserves) and as a leading political player. It may restore, even slightly, its regional standing, which has been significantly eroded since the events of the Arab Spring.
Cyprus: Cyprus has been long aspiring for a regional forum that emphasizes the need to respect the rights to natural resources of its members, pursuant to international law. The forum may provide significant backing for its political and energy-related positions vis-à-vis Turkey, including a kind of “defense shield” against confrontational actions on the part of Ankara. The Egyptian leadership of the forum is convenient for Cyprus (as well as for Greece), although along the way there may be conflicts of interest over the vision of the East Med pipeline, which currently does not include Egypt.
The Palestinian Authority: It may be assumed that the Palestinian Authoirty was invited to the forum by Egypt, with the intention to convey Cairo’s continued support for the Palestinian issue. By so doing, Egypt addressed the Egyptian public opinion, as well as to the rest of the Arab world. Moreover, having the Gaza Marine gas field off the coast of the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Authority also has practical relevance to the regional natural gas market. The new forum should explore whether it can leverage the potential embedded in this gas field also for the benefit of the Palestinians.
Israel: From Israel’s point of view, this is a very important and positive development, that brings along the opportunity to take a leading role in a regional forum, bringing together both Arab countries and the Palestinians. Israel has been hoping for a regional forum such as this one, which is a political and economic dividend deriving from the gas reservoirs found in Israel’s economic waters. The underlying reason for the Egyptian leadership of the forum is the convergence of interests between Israel and Egypt in recent years, and in any event, considering the complex regional circumstances, only Egypt could sponsor such a project and make it happen. Being backed by such a forum, it would possibly be easier for the Egyptian government to deal with domestic as well as regional criticism and resistance regarding gas import from Israel. It is possible that in the future, conflicts of interest will emerge between the member countries and it would be difficult for Israel to maneuver in terms of export destinations or to maintain its status as a regional energy hub. However, it appears that the advantages clearly outweigh the disadvantages.
The US: This forum is a structure that well serves US interests, despite its not being a member. The member countries have close relations with Washington and would like to see an effective American involvement in the region, even in the context of natural gas. It will be particularly interesting to observe Russia’s reaction to the forum, since it is a major player in the global energy sector and a global power that is back in the region (from which the US is gradually withdrawing).
It is still too early to say whether the new forum will succeed in playing an important role in the region and beyond, both politically and with regard to the energy sector. However, it is a structure that provides the framework for potential regional cooperation, and for the time being it seems that the member countries have strong shared interests to make it a success.
Amb. (ret.) Michael Harari is a Policy Fellow at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. He served as the Israeli Ambassador to Cyprus from 2010 to 2015.