Should the regional competition in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin be viewed by Israel as an opportunity or risk?
By Dr. Moshe Albo | August, 2021
|Photo: Map - Nzeemin | CC BY-SA 3.0|
The tension between Turkey on the one hand and Egypt, Greece and Cyprus on the other over the Eastern Mediterranean Basin continues, despite Ankara's efforts to ease the stress with Cairo and Athens. In response, Egypt is tightening its strategic collaboration with Greece and Cyprus to deter Turkey, going as far as to signal that it will not hesitate to take military action in view of the threat to its state security interests in this area.
The Second Civil War in Libya (2014–2020) revealed the struggle between the two opposing camps in the Middle East over control of natural resources and energy, maritime routes, as well as political and ideological impact. The Benghazi government, supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia, failed to overthrow the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, supported by Turkey and Qatar. General Haftar's military defeat in the campaign he headed to invade Tripoli (April 2019–June 2020) has led to the ceasefire agreement signed in October 2020, which remains in force to date.
The international community, led by Germany and the U.N., has attempted to stabilize the fragile Libyan ceasefire by promoting a political framework that would have lasting legitimacy among the various forces at play in Libya and the regional system. The Government of National Accord is functioning de facto as a provisional government that strives to hold democratic elections in December 2021, formulate an agreed constitution, unite the army, and remove all foreign forces from Libya. The Berlin Conference (June 2021), held under U.N. auspices, has ratified the provisional government's mandate, urging all foreign forces to leave Libya. However, the situation is explosive and entails many challenges and interests of regional and international powers that do not necessarily correspond with the current process.
Turkey is perceived as the great winner in this last round of fighting since the military support it provided to the Tripoli government determined the outcome of this campaign. In November 2019, Turkey signed two agreements of long-term strategic significance with the Tripoli government: a maritime boundary treaty, and a military cooperation agreement. These enabled Turkey to entrench itself militarily in Libya, develop gas and oil reserves in the EEZ, and expand its influence to Africa and Europe using the foothold it had established in the arena.
Egypt, in the meantime, is striving to become a regional energy hub based on its gas liquefaction facilities. Cairo had established the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), of which Israel is a member, in order to consolidate regional gas development efforts in the East Mediterranean, as well as unite all existing collaborations under a single umbrella. The forum is now internationally recognized (the World Bank and European Union have joined it as observers), and aims to institutionalize regional economic collaborations on energy while developing a local gas market with Egypt at its helm. However, Turkish military presence in Libya, along with Ankara's plans for the Eastern Mediterranean Basin, are posing a threat to the Egyptian-Greek-Cypriot strategy, increasing the tension and distrust between the parties.
Turkey has altered its oppositional policy toward Egypt and Greece over the last 12 months. It is taking steps to lessen the tension and put their bilateral relations in order, while avoiding retreating from the regional strategy it has been promoting both in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. Thus, after several years of detachment, Ankara held negotiations with Athens to settle their differences over the delineation of maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean (January 2021); and, for the first time since the July 2013 revolution, a delegation headed by the Turkish Foreign Minister visited Cairo (May 2021) to promote bilateral dialogue, and convey fundamental willingness to negotiate the disputed EEZ delineation. In addition, as a show of good faith, Turkey ordered the Muslim Brotherhood media outlets to stop criticizing the Egyptian regime, while conveying its own open message from the presidential office stating its desire to turn over a new leaf with Cairo.
Nevertheless, Turkey's apparent strategy in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean has not changed. Despite the international community's demand that Turkish forces leave Libya, Ankara has no intention of complying at present. Furthermore, President Erdogan has recently reiterated that Turkey is determined to exercise its rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, and will not hesitate to explore and produce gas and oil in this area. Subsequently, the Turkish national energy company, TPAO, has announced its intention to begin drilling for oil in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Egypt has been rejecting Turkey's reconciliation efforts while taking steps to strengthen the regional alliance openly to deter Ankara. For instance, the Egyptian Chief of General Staff signed a military cooperation protocol with his Greek counterpart in Athens while the Egyptian Minister of Defense met with his Cypriot counterpart in Cairo to discuss the promotion of the two countries' strategic collaboration. Egypt has also inaugurated a naval base near the border with Libya (the "Third of July" Base). In the opening ceremony, attended, inter alia, by the President of the interim Presidential Council of Libya and the Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Zayed from the United Arab Emirates, the Egyptian President conveyed a clear message whereby Egypt will protect its economic and strategic interests in the area. At the same time, Cairo began its strategic military exercise "Kader 2021" to display its advanced military capabilities. Military expert, Major General (res.) Nasr Salem, stated that the military exercise's importance lies in its demonstration of the power of the Egyptian Army and the deterrence of all regional actors (Turkey as well as Ethiopia) seeking to jeopardize Egypt's state security interests.
Egypt's extensive activity on both military and diplomatic levels comes as a response to an authentic sense of threat to its strategic goals and stability following Turkey's undermining activity in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, and an attempt to establish a counter-strategy by strengthening the regional alliances and its own military deterrence.
The evolving conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin is forcing Israel to be decisive in a strategic crossroads, for while Jerusalem has no interest in intensifying the conflict in its relations with Ankara or adding fuel to the flames of the Turkish oppositional policy against it, Turkish success in the eastern basin of the Turkish Sea would undermine Israel's ability to drive the underwater East Med gas pipeline project for exporting natural gas from Israel and Cyprus to Greece, Italy and Europe, as well as deflate the EMGF, the strategic importance of which lies in its very existence. Furthermore, Turkish military and economic entrenchment in the East Mediterranean could expand Ankara's impact while challenging the regional strategy of both Israel and its allies.
Israel cannot sit idly by in face of such regional dynamics. It must leverage its special relations with Washington to influence the formulation of U.S. policy that would be supportive of the regional allies, and help curb the Turkish strategy in the East Mediterranean. Israel now has the opportunity to tighten its strategic relations with Egypt, and shape regional architecture in collaboration with Greece and Cyprus to advance long-term economic-energetic and security interests, while increasing its own valuableness.
Authored by Dr. Moshe Albo, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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