What the Mediterranean Means for Israeli Geopolitics

Author
Ehud Eiran, Aviad Rubin
Content Type
Commentary and Analysis
Institution
Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)
Abstract
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).
Topic
Economics, Energy Policy, Geopolitics, Refugees
Political Geography
Middle East, Israel, Palestine, Mediterranean