Babylon & Beyond

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ISRAEL: Neighbors watchful as Israel demarcates maritime borders with Cyprus

December 26, 2010 |  9:46 pm

Levant basin Huge gas fields discovered recently under the Mediterranean seabed have raised high hopes in Israel, a small, high-consumption country seeking alternative energy resources and a greater degree of
  independence from imports.

In a different geopolitical reality, the discovery could benefit the whole region — if it was on speaking terms. Everyone wants to tap natural resources — but this one taps into standing regional squabbles.

Israel and Lebanon, for example. The deposits extend into areas controlled by Lebanon, and it has accused Israel of moving in on its natural resources. Not so, says  Israel, which maintains that the fields lie between its territory and Cyprus.  Israel's minister of national infrastructures, Uzi Landau, even said Israel would "not hesitate to use force" to protect the fields and uphold international maritime law.

Then there's the Lebanese militia, Hezbollah. Israeli officials have expressed concern that gas rigs off its northern coast would make an attractive target for rockets and terrorist attacks.

Maritime borders are a fluid affair. There are several methods for calculating these in lieu of a direct bilateral agreement, which is not an option for Israel and Lebanon. 

Israel had neglected to sort this out with Cyprus, which "owns" the other end of the Mediterranean. Now the two countries have divvied up the roughly 200 nautical miles between them and the maritime border was demarcated in a recent agreement signed in Nicosia by Cypriot Foreign Minister Markos Kyprianou and Landau. Israeli diplomats say the agreement should secure Israel's economic interests in the Mediterranean. Cyprus says this doesn't conflict with a similar agreement signed with Lebanon, still awaiting ratification in parliament. 

Now Egypt is watching, to ensure the agreement doesn't infringe on Egyptian maritime territories and its interests. It too has signed a deal with Cyprus.

Agreement in the region is a short blanket; cover one side, and someone else's feet stick out. Now Turkey is angry. 

Although Turkey has no claim to the area demarcated with Israel, the Turkish foreign ministry fiercely criticized the agreement saying it didn't consider "Turkish Cypriot" rights and jurisdiction over the maritime areas of the island.

Turkey's 1974 takeover of northern Cyprus remains internationally contested, as Israeli commentators  were pleased to point out when Turkish officials slammed the agreement. Turkey has gall to demand rights based on its occupation of northern Cyprus, Israeli diplomatic sources said.

Israel, whose once warm relations with Turkey have suffered in the last year, is interested in patching things up. While willing to bend a little, senior Israeli officials draw the line at the apology Turkey has sought for the deadly raid on an aid flotilla headed to Gaza. Turkey's dispatch of planes to help put out the Carmel Forest fire this month opened the door to a reconciliation. There was some progress, then the talks foundered. Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu blamed internal disputes within the Israeli government, where coalition rivalries can result in contradictory messages.

Israel's own tough-talking Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman demonstrated this Thursday. Lashing out at a conference of Israeli diplomats, Lieberman said he can "no longer stand the lies" of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan or Davutoglu, who said it would have taken Israel days to send the kind of aid Ankara sent Israel during the fire. Reminding Turkey of Israel's extensive delegation in its 1999 earthquake, Lieberman called Turkey's demand for an apology for the May flotilla  "more than chutzpah."

He also had a go at the Palestinians and at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who took a while before issuing a statement declaring that ministers may have different positions on matters, Israel's position is "solely the one the prime minister expresses."

Back to the gas. Beyond geopolitics, the discovery is also giving Israelis a bellyache. The two main sites — Tamar and Leviathan — could answer Israel's natural gas needs for decades. With the reserves' value estimated at about $300 billion, a bitter public debate is raging over who will benefit most and how to divide profits between state, tycoons and small investors.

— Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Above: The Levant Basin where the U.S. Geological Survey  estimates there may be as much as 122 trillion cubic meters of recoverable natural gas. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

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