As the Middle East awaits the inauguration of President-elect Biden, offshore Mediterranean natural gas could play a role in forging cooperation in the region.

A Sa'ar-6 Israel Navy warship cruises near Israel's offshore Leviathan natural gas platform.
A Sa’ar-6 Israel Navy warship cruises near Israel’s offshore Leviathan natural gas platform, Dec. 1, 2020.Credit: Ilan Rosenberg/Reuters

Zvi Bar’el Published 12/22/2020

The policy shift that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made last month when he decided to renew security cooperation with Israel and to return the Palestinian ambassadors to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates is part of what the Palestinian Authority is doing in advance of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration next month.

It’s not that Abbas in pinning much hope on the success of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, if and when they resume, and it’s still unclear whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be a top priority for Biden. But it behooves the Palestinians to lay the groundwork for such a possibility. It’s no less important for the Arab countries, particularly those that have recently normalized relations with Israel, to present the Palestinian problem as an issue up for discussion so they don’t go down in history has having abandoned the Palestinians.

The same is true of the need to reduce public criticism that the normalization agreements have sparked in the Arab world. On Saturday, the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority met at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry to discuss possible courses of action and to present a diplomatic plan to the new U.S. administration. 

The meeting was held about two weeks after Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan jointly announced their continued support for the Arab Peace Initiative, which the Arab League endorsed in 2002 and the provisions of which include the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. 

On November 30, Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi agreed on the need to renew Palestinian negotiations with Israel and for reconciliation between Abbas’ Fatah party and  Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Anyone who thought the Palestinian issue was off the table when the Israeli flag was raised in the UAE will apparently have to put the celebrations on hold. 

It’s actually the natural gas sector that may provide a possible springboard for the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Israel and the Palestinian Authority are both members of the EastMed Gas Forum, an Egyptian initiative that is now a formal international organization that includes the participation of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Greece and Cyprus, all of which have the status of member states. At the end of last week, Egypt announced that the UAE has joined the forum as an observer. 

The forum’s initial goal was to mount a defense against Turkey, which has begun oil and gas exploration in areas of the Eastern Mediterranean that Greece and Cyprus claim as part of their maritime economic zones. The forum has also sought to fight an agreement between Turkey and Libya that drew the border between their maritime zones and in the process cuts off Egypt’s gas fields from direct access to the European market. 

The problem is that Palestine is not a sovereign state with recognized borders, although it is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which permits signatory states to claim ownership of natural resources within 200 nautical miles of their coastlines.

Because Israel does not recognize Palestine, it also does not recognize the Palestine’s right to exploit offshore natural resources, including oil and natural gas in the Mediterranean. Egypt will attempt to overcome this complication through an agreement with the Palestinian Authority that would delineate the maritime border. The two sides negotiated this back in 2016, but failed to reach an agreement, primarily due to opposition from Israel which, since the second intifada, has blocked gas exploration at offshore sites known as Gaza Marine 1 and 2, which are roughly 36 kilometers (22 statute miles) off the coast of Gaza. 

With the establishment of the EastMed Gas Forum, discussions have been held between Egyptian and Palestinian experts on practical aspects of the demarcation of the maritime border. In Egypt, the argument is being made that Israel has no reason to oppose negotiating with the Palestinian Authority and even Hamas, which supports efforts at an agreement on the maritime border, just as Israel is negotiating differences over its northern maritime border with the Lebanese government. That, it is pointed out, comes despite the fact that the Shi’ite Hezbollah militia movement is part of the Lebanese government. If Egypt and the State of Palestine do designate their maritime border, it would be the first recognized boundary for Palestine, which appears to be the primary reason for Israel to oppose it. 

Another question involves the completion of a gas pipeline from Israel to Gaza. The project would provide Gaza with about 1 billion cubic meters of gas per year. That might meet most of the Gaza Strip’s electricity needs and free the Palestinian Authority from a considerable portion of its purchases of Israeli electricity, which currently supplies the Gaza Strip with about 60 percent of its needs. 

The pipeline was discussed back in 2014 in talks among Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Middle East Quartet – the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. Its estimated $100 million cost was due to be paid by European countries and Qatar. But like many other projects, the pipeline project was shelved. Recently there have been discussions involving Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Qatar on construction of the pipeline, completion of which, barring further complications, is expected at the end of 2022. 

Indirect Hamas talks

Hamas is also a party to the talks with Israel, albeit indirectly. According to Palestinian sources, Israel is trying to link the gas pipeline project to agreement on the release of two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers being held in Gaza. Israel is also intends to make the  project one of the provisions of a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas.

For its part, Hamas is demanding guarantees that gas supplies from the pipeline not be used as leverage on Hamas, as Israel does with the diesel fuel it sells to the Gaza Strip for its existing electric power station. The construction of the pipeline and the related agreements are also not divorced from broader regional interests linking Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Greece and Cyprus, and in which Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have become significant partners.