Although the Mediterranean was traditionally an afterthought in Israeli geopolitical thinking, the 2000s recorded a shift: Israel is turning to the sea. The Mediterranean is capturing a growing role in Israeli geostrategic thinking. This is in large part the result of the discovery and development of gas in the Mediterranean Sea beginning in the late 1990s. Developed rather quickly, these gas reserves made Israel energy self-sufficient, a significant geo-strategic transformation. Prior to these discoveries, energy was a serious concern. The state had no energy resources, and for decades found it challenging to secure supply in the face of Arab hostility. With the gas discoveries, Israel gained not only energy independence, but also an economic and political tool. Israeli agreements to export gas to Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority gave Israel important leverage. The gas discoveries in the Mediterranean further offered the possibility for export to Europe if indeed Israeli-Greek–Cypriote designs to build an undersea pipe will materialize. The new maritime energy source contributed to the expansion of the Israeli navy. Once a junior player in the Israeli armed forces, in 2013 the navy was entrusted by the government to protect the gas depots, despite the fact that they are held in private hands (including by non-Israeli corporations) and are outside of Israel’s territorial waters. The new task, alongside the expansion of the submarine flotilla (probably as part of a future nuclear deterrent against Iran), awarded the fleet a more important role in Israel’s national security establishment and resource allocation. It also allowed Israel to use the force for international cooperation and military diplomacy in the region. This turn to the sea also contributed to an emerging quasi-alliance with Cyprus and Greece, which includes, among many other areas, the possible joint gas export project, military exercises, and bi-annual trilateral summits between these countries’ leaders. Like its regional allies, Israel is affected by growing Chinese interest in the Mediterranean. Chinese corporations contracted the expansion of Israel’s two largest ports, Ashdod and Haifa. The latter was substantial enough to irk the US, whose navy used the Haifa port in the past for re-supply. Israeli and Chinese actors are in early phases of developing a Chinese funded, or owned, high speed train from Israel’s Red Sea port in Eilat to the Mediterranean port of Ashdod, that will serve as an alternate route for the Suez Canal portion of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Finally, Israel’s geostrategic turn to the sea is fueled by its newish reliance on desalinated water from the Mediterranean. For decades the country suffered from water shortages. Following a 2008 government plan, it moved to heavy dependence on desalinated water that is sourced in the Mediterranean, and processed in five coastline plants. Today, desalinated water accounts for more than 50 percent of Israel’s overall water consumption, and 80 percent of its residential and commercial water needs.
Israel’s turn to the sea has the potential to further affect its relations with the regions’ actors around it. On the one hand, it holds the promise for greater Israeli integration into the Middle East. Jordan who has limited natural resources is already benefiting from a close, affordable energy source and water supply from Israel. The Palestinian Authority could follow. Egypt, is importing gas from Israel, to fill the gap between its current national gas resources, and the large needs of the Egyptian economy. On the other hand, Israel’s self-reliance, and maritime-based alliance with the non-Arab, non-Muslim Greece and Cyprus, could also be seen as a way of distancing itself from the Middle-East. The alliance with the Hellenic nations could also drag Israel into the seemingly escalating tension between the Hellenic states and Turkey. Ankara began projecting more assertively into the Eastern Mediterranean in the last few months, including the use of force in Libya, the signing of an EEZ demarcation agreement with it, and the prevention of commercial exploration activities in Cypriote waters, alongside Turkish gas explorations in Cypriot economic waters. Turkey is the strongest maritime actor in the region and invests considerable resources in maintaining this status. Its domestic industries develop capacities to build large naval platforms, including submarines and an aircraft carrier, and to export warships to other states. Turkey is also a key player in controlling the flow of refugees from the region to Europe and is involved in most of the conflicts in the Eastern Mediterranean. Cyprus and Greece might expect Israel, their militarily superior new ally, to help in curbing Turkish ambitions. The disparity between Turkish strength and aspirations, and its seeming marginalization by the emerging power axis of Egypt, Israel Greece and Cyprus might amplify regional tensions and make a direct confrontation between Turkey and Israel, especially over energy issues, Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) demarcation or Gaza, more likely. Finally, Israel’s geostrategic turn to the sea might buttress existing regional institutions, such as the Union of the Mediterranean, or at least increase Israel’s desire to support them or maybe even create new ones. After all, the Israeli reliance on energy and water from the Mediterranean necessitates a greater involvement in protecting and regulating this space. The joint aspects of maritime-based gas exploration and export have already led to the creation in early 2020 of a nascent Cairo-based, East-Mediterranean institution, the East Med Gas Forum.