Thursday, November 12, 2020

Mediterranean: when exploration of gas fields hurtles with hegemonic ambitions

 The projected EastMed pipeline which is scheduled for construction start in 2023 is jeopardised by expansionist aspirations of Turkey. Israel has ordered four stealth capable corvettes at a german shipyard. The first one has just been delivered. Some observers draw parallels to arm races in the wake of WW1 writes german newspaper WELT:

Israel's security is German reasons of state - Angela Merkel's confession to the Knesset is probably the most frequently quoted sentence by a German head of government in Israel. Now Germany's responsibility for the Jewish state is to become visible: On November 11, the Kiel-built warship “INS Magen” (Hebrew for protective shield) will be handed over to the Israeli Navy.

It is the first of four Sa’ar 6-class corvettes that the Israeli government has ordered from ThyssenKrupp. According to the Ministry of Defense, the federal government is financing around a third of the project with 115 million euros.

“Stomach” is supposed to protect Israel's share of the contested gas reserves in the Mediterranean. The importance of the German stealth ships for Israel can already be seen from the fact that the otherwise rather closed Navy invited a handful of journalists to the presentation.

At the Gidonim base near Tel Aviv, an officer shows pictures of Hamas armed divers and Hezbollah long-range missiles. For Israel, surrounded by hostile states, the sea is no less than its lifeline.

Israel imports 90 percent of its wheat by ship. 50 percent of the drinking water comes from seawater desalination plants. Israel obtains around 70 percent of its electricity needs from gas from fields on the ocean floor. If rockets hit the production platforms, the country would stand still.

The Tamar gas field is about 80 kilometers off the coast. Since 2013, 30 million cubic meters of natural gas have been flowing from there to Israel every day. The Leviathan field further south is more than twice as large. Israel started mining there at the end of 2019. For a long time the country was dependent on gas supplies, mainly from Egypt. The discovery of its own deposits around ten years ago turned Israel from importer into exporter - and its maritime infrastructure into a target.

Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah in Lebanon, announced that he could destroy Israel's gas production platforms "within a few hours". When Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired 690 rockets and grenades at Israel within 48 hours in May 2019, Israel's energy minister ordered the gas supply from the Tamar field to be temporarily interrupted.

The most ambitious and at the same time most conflictual pipeline project in the Mediterranean is the EastMed planned by Israel, Greece and Cyprus, which should go into construction in 2023. At a depth of 3000 meters, it should run from Israel via Cyprus, Crete and mainland Greece and supply the European continent with energy.

The EU is subsidizing the planning of the billion-dollar project with 34.5 million euros; It could meet an estimated ten percent of Europe's natural gas requirements - and thus significantly reduce dependence on Russia.

But whether the EastMed, which at 1,900 kilometers would be the longest underwater pipeline in the world, will ever be built is in the stars. On the one hand, the cost-benefit ratio is controversial. On the other hand, the dispute over the gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean is escalating: In the summer, Turkey sent a drilling ship into Greek waters and declared it a restricted zone.

Turkey claims part of the gas reserves east of Crete and off Cyprus. Ankara has negotiated an “exclusive economic zone” in the Mediterranean with the Libyan government, which has been weakened by the civil war and is heavily dependent on Turkey.

The EastMed would run right through this zone, which no neighboring state recognizes. Turkey, on the other hand, feels excluded from the East Med Gas Forum energy network, to which Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Greece, Cyprus and Italy belong. It is said from Ankara that the EastMed project will not be tolerated.

But, says Seth Frantzman, director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, Turkey does not necessarily need the gas in the Mediterranean, as it could draw on deposits in the Black Sea. "Actually, the dispute is not about gas, but about supremacy in the Mediterranean."

Since the global political withdrawal of the USA, which began under Barack Obama, the military expert has observed an arming of the naval forces "similar to that before the First World War". In the Middle East, the US would have left a vacuum into which Russia and Turkey in particular are penetrating. Greece defends itself against Erdogan's neo-Ottoman power politics.

Israel is drawn into the Greek-Turkish conflict. Last December, the Turkish navy intercepted an Israeli ship that was supposed to search for gas in Cypriot territorial waters. Shortly afterwards, the Turkish Air Force forced an Israeli fighter plane out of the airspace over the northern part of the island, which Turkey occupied in 1974. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assures us that Turkish aggression is being taken very seriously.

However, Israel's navy is poorly equipped. The delivery of the warships is therefore essential. German engineers and the Israeli military worked together in the construction of the “Magen” in order to “tailor it to our needs”, as the lieutenant colonel in charge in Gidonim explains.

When the stealth corvette arrives in Israel at the beginning of December, it will be equipped with missile interception systems similar to the "Iron Dome". The main focus is on Hezbollah's long-range arsenal. A rocket impact could be enough to turn off gas production. But it shouldn't get that far: “Stomach” will be used in the immediate vicinity of the gas fields. The ship's firepower is "enormously deterrent".

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