Extraordinary Mediteranean gas pipeline project to link Israel, Europe gains US support

“Until I see a substantial agreement, a budget and an explanation of who funds it, it is still all theoretical,” says former Israeli Ambassador to Greece Arye Mekel.

By Yaakov Lappin, JNS

As Israel, Greece and Cyprus build an important alliance in the eastern Mediterranean, one ambitious project under discussion by the three countries is attracting both interest and debate over its feasibility.

The EastMed pipeline, which envisions the construction of a pipeline that takes natural gas from Israeli and Cypriot underwater reserves, and then transfers them to Greece and beyond, has been a frequent talking point during trilateral summits.

In March, a summit in Jerusalem involving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades was joined by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who expressed support for the project.

The pipeline, which could extend for 2,000 kilometers (nearly 1,250 miles) and go as far as Italy, has the potential to “attract investment that will maximize these resource,” said Pompeo. Its estimated cost is $7 billion. Supporters, especially Washington, tout it as a way for Europe to diversify its energy supply, decreasing dependence on Russia.

Yet doubts have also surfaced about the idea’s ability to make the leap from theory to implementation.

“I would view it as a good theoretical idea, which is very far from realization,” Israel’s former ambassador to Greece from 2010 to 2014, Arye Mekel, told JNS. “They’ve been talking about it for almost 10 years. But throughout this time, only talks came out of it.”

So far, no formal decision has been taken to begin construction. Mekel pointed out the difficult hurdles that lie in the way of realizing the plan. “Theoretically, the idea sounds very good. But a practical decision has never been taken. The difficulties are known. It is very difficult from a technical perspective to lay this pipeline. There are sections of the Mediterranean that are very deep—beyond Cyprus, near the Greek islands. And no one said they’d be glad to fund it.”

Previous proposals of funding for the construction work by the European Union, in exchange for a quantity of natural gas reaching European states, did not materialize.

In 2018, Israeli media reported that the E.U. agreed to invest $100 million in a feasibility study prior to reaching an agreement. Under the proposal, Israel and Cyprus would receive preference as gas exporters to the European market.

According to reports, the EastMed pipeline would be able to deliver 20 billion cubic meters of gas annually.

‘The regional architecture landscape is changing’

‘Three democratic countries harmoniously cooperating’

George N. Tzogopoulos, a lecturer at the Democritus University of Thrace, in Greece, and a research associate at the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, told JNS that despite the challenges, the project should be viewed from a wide perspective.

“The EastMed pipeline is more expensive than other options and can be technically challenging, but is certainly feasible,” he said. “But the project should not be seen only from this perspective. Security is much more important than higher prices or technical difficulties. Three democratic countries—Israel, Greece and Cyprus—are harmoniously cooperating and seek to export natural gas from the Levantine Basin to Europe.”

The increasing amounts of natural gas discovered in the area have made “the discussion about export options more important than ever,” said Tzogopoulos. “The regional architecture landscape is changing, and that is why the U.S. openly supports the EastMed pipeline. The American support can be the key to success. After the Greek and the Israeli national election of July and September respectively, trilateral summits—now under Washington’s institutional umbrella—will continue to take place paving the way for the realization of the project in the long-term and is accordance with the finding of hydrocarbons.”

Meanwhile, regional tensions between multiple states surrounding the future exploration and drilling for Mediterranean natural gas continues to bubble up to the surface.

Israel and Lebanon have not yet defined their shared maritime border. The two neighbors, still technically in a state of war, dispute an area of 300 square miles in the eastern Mediterranean that has potential energy resources. Reported U.S. mediation to settle the maritime dispute are underway, so far with no tangible results.

At the same time, Turkey’s dispute with Cyprus means that the pipeline would have to take a long route to avoid Turkish maritime boundaries, driving up costs and sparking fears of Turkish interference in drilling activities, as Ankara is angry about being left out of such a project.

This dispute hit the headlines recently when two Turkish drilling ships began operating off the Cypriot coastline, sparking anger in Nicosia and Athens.

Turkey ‘seeks to increase tensions’

“As far as Turkey is concerned, as long as the Cyprus question remains unresolved, no pipeline passing through the exclusive economic zone of the illegally occupied northern part of the island will be constructed,” said Tzogopoulos. “Ankara understands this reality, and seeks to increase tensions and cause fear to Athens and Nicosia. Again, the U.S. holds the key for a solution to the problem.

“Historically, the U.S. had regarded Turkey a more important strategic ally than Greece and Cyprus,” he continued. “But in recent months, this seems to slightly change. American-Turkish relations are strained, while Greece and Cyprus are becoming America’s best partners in the Eastern Mediterranean in parallel with Israel.”

As Greece, Cyprus and Israel charting their own course in the eastern Mediterranean, backed by firm U.S. support, Turkey “is not excluded” from this partnership. Rather, “it prefers the politics of bullying,” argued Tzogopoulos.

Mekel echoed the dramatic developments in Israel-Greek relations in recent years. He recalled how from 2010 onwards, under the rule of Socialist Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, relations warmed significantly. “We succeeded in continuing this momentum, improving it under the conservative [Antonis] Samarus. And much to our surprise, relations improved even further unde the current prime minster, [Alexis] Tsipras, despite the fact that he was perceived as far left,” stated Mekel.

The trend looks set to continue under newly elected Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who has pledged to strengthen Greek-Israeli ties even further.

Similarly, Israeli-Cypriot relations began flourishing under a Communist president, Demetris Christofias, who died just last month.

Israeli military benefit

From Israel’s perspective, Mekel argued, the principal benefit has been military, with the Israeli Air Force now able to train in Greece on a regular basis—a country that has an air space 20 times larger than that of Israel’s. Greece’s highly trained air-force pilots, who are a part of the NATO alliance, form valuable training partners for the Israelis, noted Mekel.

Israeli commando units have also conducted beneficial ground training in Cyprus with local military forces.

With Israel seeking to reciprocate, “we found the pipeline as an excellent thing to talk about,” said Mekel. “I don’t see it happening at the moment. During the last meeting between ministers, an agreement was signed, but in my eyes, it was all theoretical. Until I see a substantial agreement, a budget and an explanation of who funds it, it is still all theoretical.”