The Leviathan in the room: Israel’s energy pursuits brings new era of geopolitical threats

Israel barely finished reveling in its 2009 discovery of the gas-rich Tamar field, located a mere 90 kilometers off its northwestern coast, when an even greater field–with potentially double the amount of gas—was found tucked off the shore of Haifa.  The second discovery, approximately 130 kilometers off Israel’s coast, has been dubbed the Leviathan field for its sheer enormity; the Leviathan has potential gas capabilities rivaling that of a mini Saudi Arabia.

On March 30th, for the first time in 4 years, Israel began pumping natural gas from the Tamar field.

By virtue of just being located near Israel, Tamar and Leviathan are hyper political; add Beirut, Ankara, Nicosia, a crippled Damascus, and a mini oil goldmine into the equation, and it becomes almost comically complex.  As Israel vacillates between celebrating its new future as a competitor to her oil rich neighbors, she is also simultaneously strengthening diplomatic ties and preparing for unprecedented threats; the new treasure is both a new front for future regional armed conflicts and a bull’s-eye for Hezbollah and Hamas. Meanwhile, old tensions continue to flare and strained relationships could potentially turn colder.

Israel-Lebanon: “not one inch”-“not a single cup”

Following the Leviathan field discovery in 2010, Lebanon rejected Israel’s sovereignty over the water, arguing that the Leviathan field runs into its Exclusive Economic Zone. The ongoing disputed maritime area, which is approximately 850 km, immediately aggravated relations between the two countries that remain in a state of perpetual conflict. Reportedly, after Beirut sent maps to the United Nations, detailing perceived sovereignty over the Leviathan Field, Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman responded, “We won’t give an inch.” Lebanon’s parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri later retorted, “we will not compromise…not even a single cup.”

These two statements offer a microcosm of the ongoing debate surrounding the disputed maritime zone.

Awkward relationships

Meanwhile, in recent months Cyprus has nestled itself between Israel and Lebanon and offered to mediate the maritime border dispute in an attempt to foster progress region-wide.  Wholly altruistic the move is not; in January 2012 Israel and Cyprus signed the “Mutual Protection of Confidential Information” which facilitates defense and military cooperation as well as greater fluidity for arms trading and intelligence sharing.

Turkey’s control of the northern part of Cyprus and its refusal to recognize the Greek Cypriot controlled south led to immediate opposition of Cypriot claims of gas fields.  As Israel diplomatically and economically strengthens ties to Cyprus, it risks cold-shouldering a recently embraced Turkey, who adamantly opposes the new alliance.  As Israel and Cyprus attempt to pursue joint energy endeavors and potentially a future pipeline, tensions will likely intensify between Turkey and Israel.  Moreover, if Israel moves forward with tentative plans to deploy missile interceptors in Greek Cypriot territory, the recent restoration of diplomatic civility will prove ephemeral.

But the strategic Israel-Cyprus alliance is likely to only be met with a rhetoric heavy response from Ankara; the intricate relationship both Israel and Turkey has with the United States will likely prevent any type of military action.  However, Turkey’s continuation to build up a strong naval  presence to guard its own oil interests in conjunction with threats by Ankara to occupy Cypriot waters could cultivate new regional tensions that compromise the longevity of recently made promises.

Threats of militant attacks

Attempted attacks by both Hamas and Hezbollah on Israel’s actual gas fields as well as infrastructures that contribute to production are likely and credible.

Hezbollah leader Seyed Hassan Nasrallah announced that militant attacks would ensue should Israel continue working on the Leviathan field, which Hezbollah maintains is only in Lebanon’s territory. Hezbollah’s possession of Iranian C-802 anti-ship missiles, which were used during the second Lebanon War and have serious destruction capabilities, pose a potentially serious threat. As the future of Assad-regime weaponry remains unknown, an increase in weapon transfers to Hezbollah hands remains likely, in return garnering a strong response from Israel, who maintains that weapons from Syria will not touch Hezbollah fingertips.

Despite ongoing anti-Israel rhetoric, direct Hezbollah threats toward Israel in recent years have diminished greatly.  During Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza during November 2012, Hezbollah reportedly installed surveillance to prevent Palestinian militants from launching rockets toward Israel.  However, as Israel continues to develop energy endeavors in the contested area, and as Israel continues to thwart potential Hezbollah weapon grabs in Syria, increased opportunities for Hezbollah attacks are presented and threats are likely to skyrocket.

The latest Israeli offensive in Gaza that resulted in several long-range missiles salvos targeting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem illustrates that Hamas, despite lacking strategic capability to orchestrate precision strikes, does indeed have such long-range missiles.

The precarious ceasefire could easily be broken should Israel assess that a Hamas related threat on its energy endeavors is viable.

With new Israeli energy comes a potential restructuring of the geopolitical dynamics of the entire Levant. The next few months will be pivotal in determining the strength of recently restored diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey.  Meanwhile, the tenuous calm between Hezbollah, and Israel–already disrupted by Syria–is now in even greater jeopardy.

Comprehensive agreements must be implemented in the near term to specifically define nebulous maritime borders, and greater diplomatic strides must continue to be made.  Without this, the Leviathan and Tamar fields may threaten Israel’s marginally improved diplomatic gains and disrupt the tentative peace she currently has with her neighbors.



About the Author
Brooklyn Middleton writes from the Middle East. You can follow her on twitter here: @BklynMiddleton.