ANKARA: As the long-awaited meeting between Turkish and Israeli presidents approaches, Ankara has emphasized its willingness to boost energy cooperation with Tel Aviv as Washington loses interest in the controversial EastMed pipeline project that would carry Israeli gas to Europe through Cyprus and Greece.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that the two countries could work on transporting natural gas from Israel to Europe, while at the same time searching for new avenues of energy cooperation during talks scheduled for mid-March.
However, experts suggest that because of the low level of trust between the two countries and Israel’s ongoing commitments with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt, the two countries should work on strategic projects other than natural gas.
As part of Turkey’s pursuit to normalize ties with Israel and to end its isolation in the energy sector across the Eastern Mediterranean, Israeli President Isaac Herzog is expected to visit his Turkish counterpart next month with an agenda focused on energy projects.
Turkey, whose annual gas consumption is expected to be around 60 billion cubic meters, is currently working on diversifying its natural gas resources — a move that has become increasingly important since the sudden cut by Iran that affected several industrial sectors and exposed the country’s vulnerability to energy shortages.
The signing of a natural gas supply deal with Iraq is also on the horizon.
Turkey held talks on energy cooperation with Israel in 2016, but with no concrete results.
“When Israel and Turkey reconciled in 2016, natural gas export from Israel to Turkey was presented by then-Minister of Energy Steinitz as a major benefit for Israel. However, negotiations on the issue did not yield results. There were differences on prices, there were geopolitical hardships related to the route of the proposed pipeline, and there was not enough mutual trust between the two countries,” Dr. Nimrod Goren, president and founder of Mitvim —The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, told Arab News.
“Since then, Israel has further consolidated its strategic relationship with Greece and Cyprus, warmed ties with Egypt, and is cooperating with these countries and others in the framework of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, of which Turkey is not a member,” he added.
According to Goren, even though the US has stepped back from the EastMed pipeline, Israel is unlikely to shift direction and seek export via Turkey at the expense of its plans with Egypt and the Hellenic states.
“There are more important potential benefits for Israel from renewing ties with Turkey, including prospects for strategic coordination regarding Iran and Syria, chances to increase bilateral and multilateral trade and tourism, more civilian and diplomatic cooperation, and opportunities to improve ties with other Muslim countries and to advance peace with the Palestinians,” he said.
Therefore, Goren says, energy cooperation could well be an important component in the improved Israel-Turkey relationship, but he believes it should take a different shape to the suggestions made in 2016.
“Natural gas is losing its charm — in the eyes of the new Israeli government too. Renewable energies (are emerging) as the next big thing. Renewable energies can be an innovative issue for Israel-Turkey cooperation, which is less likely to create tensions with Israel’s regional allies who are still at odds with Turkey,” he said.
In his speech on Friday, Erdogan also hinted at the possibility of a mutual dispatch of special envoys between Turkey and Israel before Herzog’s visit to Turkey.
“In 2016, when Israel and Turkey last tried to restore diplomatic ties, energy cooperation was used as a way of legitimizing the process. But it is clear now that this approach has its limitations,” Gabriel Mitchell, an expert on Eastern Mediterranean energy and geopolitics and director of undergraduate studies for the University of Notre Dame at Tantur in Jerusalem, told Arab News.
“While a pipeline could deliver some economic gains to both sides, the route would pass through Cyprus’ waters, raising geopolitical and legal questions that remain unresolved,” he said.
Despite some efforts in the past to bypass the legal challenges raised by laying pipelines between Turkey and Israel, considering the ongoing close relations between Israel and Cyprus such attempts are unlikely at this time.
“The other route would be in Lebanon and Syria’s waters and that would be equally — if not more — challenging,” Mitchell said. “I believe that regional pipeline projects have often been used as a fig leaf for other diplomatic activities. I don’t see a direct pipeline in the immediate future, but there are so many other ways for the two countries to cooperate in the field of energy without the baggage of geopolitical obstacles.”
So, the experts suggest, any rapprochement between Turkey and Israel should focus on areas other than natural gas, especially considering the EU’s commitments to significantly increase its share of renewables in energy consumption up to 27 percent by 2030 and 40-60 percent by 2050, making LNG supplies much more critical for the continent.
Goren believes that a focus on the environment, sustainability and renewables can create a more collaborative atmosphere in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“When coupled with Israel-Turkey — and perhaps Egypt-Turkey — rapprochement, it may even lead to the formation of new regional mechanisms, more inclusive than the EMGF. Such climate-friendly energy cooperation will benefit Israel and Turkey — bilaterally and regionally — probably more than attempts to return to the past formula of natural gas export,” he said, adding that such innovative steps could re-integrate Turkey into regional partnerships and help ease its isolation.
Mitchell agrees and adds that joint energy projects — particularly pipelines — require a degree of mutual trust that the two governments currently lack.
“There are few, if any, cases where a pipeline project has improved ties between states with complicated diplomatic (relationships), so it makes sense for Israeli and Turkish officials to prioritize other elements in their relationship before diving into the murkier waters of pipeline politics,” he said.