Negotiations between Greece and Turkey and between Israel and Lebanon are tactical retreats, not the start of peaceful resolutions.

Greek air force jet takes part in a Greek-US military exercise south of the island of Crete, on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020
Greek air force jet takes part in a Greek-US military exercise south of the island of Crete, on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020Credit: Uncredited,AP

David Rosenberg 05.10.2020

It’s hard to say which counts more as a minor miracle in the fraught arena of East Mediterranean energy. Last week, Israel and Lebanon, two countries that are technically at war, agreed to talks over their disputed maritime boundary. The week before that, Turkey and Greece, which seemed at the brink of war despite being NATO allies, agreed to negotiations to resolve their territorial disputes.

Could these developments be to the East Mediterranean what a seemingly innocuous game of ping-pong was to U.S.-Chinese relations a half-century ago – a small start to something enormous?

Who knows what lurks in the minds of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, but it’s probably not “let’s do a deal so that a valuable energy resource can be developed and exploited for everyone’s benefit.”

The East Mediterranean and its natural gas resources are sorely in need of some diplomacy. On the one hand, gas has become the basis of cooperation between Israel, Egypt and Cyprus, via the East Mediterranean Gas Forum. On the other hand, it’s become a source of friction, mainly because Turkey has opted for an aggressive policy of not only claiming vast swathes of the East Mediterranean waters as its exclusive economic zone but dispatching drilling ships, accompanied by warships to back them up.

Until a few weeks ago, the brunt of Turkey’s aggressive actions was aimed at Cyprus. But after Greece and Egypt agreed on a maritime border in August – a riposte to a similar agreement Turkey had made last November with Libya – Erdogan turned his attention to Greece. Turkey deployed the drilling-survey ship Oruc Reis (like all the others being used by Ankara, it’s named after a conquering admiral of the Ottoman Empire, just in case anyone isn’t getting the message)  to the Aegean. Both countries dispatched warships to the area and conducted military exercises. NATO finally intervened – and then, in mid-September, Erdogan agreed to call back the Oruc Reis home, ostensibly for maintenance, and from there the two countries agreed to begin talks. Turkey’s bellicose rhetoric vis-à-vis the talks, however, sounds less like a negotiating tactic than a sign it doesn’t really want to negotiate at all.

Turkish seismic research vessel Oruc Reis sails in the Bosphoru

Erdogan’s aggressive policy in the East Mediterranean is unfortunately less about natural gas than about aggressive nationalism and power politics. The exploration Turkey has conducted in areas claimed by Greece and Cyprus as their exclusive economic zones has been accompanied by rhetoric about Turkey’s “Blue Homeland,” the special rights it should have as a major power and reviving Ottoman glory. Israel got a small taste of that last week when Erdogan spoke about Jerusalem as “ours.”

Where Erdogan wants to take Turkey with all this is unclear, but it seems doubtful it is in negotiations characterized by goodwill and a fair and equitable agreement in line with the law of the sea. Friendless and under pressure from Europe and the U.S. to stand down, Erdogan made the tactical decision to agree to talks.

There’s no rush reason to settle claims quickly. No one has actually found any gas in the areas disputed with Greece and natural gas prices are so low that commercial development is a distant prospect. Coming to terms with Greece would undermine Turkey’s claims to Cyprus’ EEZ, which Erdogan would never agree to.

The same logic almost certainly applies to Lebanon’s agreement to talk to Israel. With no permanent government, its economy is in shambles and few friends besides Syria and Iran, both of whom are in similarly dire straits, Lebanon’s back is also against the wall.

In theory, an agreement with Israel settling a disputed 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of Mediterranean waters would give a boost to Lebanon’s economy and help it pay off its immense debt. Beirut has already awarded drilling rights to France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek to explore two areas, one of which includes the area claimed by Israel.

For Lebanon, gas isn’t such a distant prospect as it is for Turkey, and if it were up to the technocrats who are supposed to be running Lebanon, the two sides might reach an agreement. But as the collapse of the last technocratic government in Lebanon shows, it’s Hezbollah that really runs the country. Economic development – certainly economic development at the cost of anything that smacks of normalization with Israel – isn’t a high priority.

Whether Lebanon is in or out of the East Mediterranean energy hub is a relatively minor matter. Turkey is different. It holds the key to letting all the countries of the area develop their gas, it would open up the big Turkish market to locally produced gas and make a pipeline to deliver it to Europe more economically viable.

But Erdogan doesn’t hold all the cards. Even with Turkey refusing to play a constructive role in the East Mediterranean, Israel and Egypt can continue to move forward, even if Cyprus and Greece cannot.

Indeed, last week the Israeli-Egyptian partnership got an important boost after shareholders of Noble Energy approved Chevron’s acquisition of their company. One of the world’s biggest energy companies, Chevron already has energy interests in Egypt, and now it’s adding Israel’s Tamar and Leviathan gas fields to its holdings. If it thought the East Mediterranean was a lost cause, it wouldn’t be spending billions to be there.