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Boon times for Israel

Offshore gas finds potential windfall for peace, recipe for war

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Posted on: 
27 Jul 2011
Boon times for Israel

After decades of vainly scouring the Land of Israel for oil and gas deposits mirroring those in nearby Arab countries, energy companies finally hit the jackpot in recent years just off the Mediterranean coast. Enough natural gas deposits have already been discovered under the ocean floor to power Israel’s electric grid and bolster its defenses for years to come, while also solving the nation’s water crisis, relieving social inequities, and turning Israel into an energy exporter. Even more gas fields are still being located at sea, while massive oil shale deposits were recently identified back on land in the Negev and Galilee that could rival the mighty Saudi oil reserves.

The windfall which these natural resources will soon bring to the nation is also renewing hope among some Israelis that peace is again possible, if the government offers to share the benefits with the Palestinians, Jordan, Syria and other surrounding Arab states. For one, the natural gas supplies will now be used by Israel to power electric plants, which in turn will run the desalination plants that are projected to provide a surplus of fresh water to alleviate the acute water shortage (see accompanying article). The logic goes that Israel could build goodwill among hostile neighbors by alleviating the region’s chronic lack of water.

On the other hand, the lucrative oil and gas fields off the Israeli coast could also constitute a major source of conflict in the years ahead. In recent months, tensions have been rising between Israel and the new Hizbullah-controlled government in Lebanon over the large Leviathan gas field off Haifa, which Beirut claims is located in its territorial waters.

Those tensions flared last month when the Israeli cabinet approved a map for submittal to the United Nations demarcating its northern maritime border with Lebanon and Cyprus. The map reflects an understanding reached with Cyprus last December on offshore exploration and developments rights. But the problem is that Lebanon and Israel are still formally at war and have never met to draw a mutually-agreed boundary – on land or at sea.

Denouncing the Israeli map, Hizbullah deputy chief Naim Qassem insisted his group would “defend the country’s maritime rights… The Israeli threats don’t frighten us... Israel knows its threats fall on deaf ears in Lebanon, after it tasted the bitter taste of the powerful Lebanese resistance.”

In response, one Israeli official suggested Hizbullah was not only interested in the huge profits to be gained from the gas deposits, but also was looking to create another pretext for continuing the conflict with Israel – an “underwater Sheba Farms.”

Thus, the offshore fossil fuel wealth has turned the eastern Mediterranean into a potential theater of confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah.

Retired IDF intelligence officer Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah noted that Hizbullah already boasts an amphibious warfare unit trained in underwater sabotage and coastal infiltration. Its ability to target shipping - and possibly offshore oil and gas platforms - was exposed in the Second Lebanon War in 2006 when Hizbullah came close to sinking an Israeli missile boat with a modified Chinese C-802 missile.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu anticipated the Shi’ite militia’s threats in January when he declared the offshore gas fields were a “strategic objective that Israel’s enemies will try to undermine… Israel will defend its resources.”

Middle East scholar Prof. Daniel Pipes told The Jerusalem Post that Hizbullah’s denunciations of Israel’s maritime map were “comical.”

“I don’t take it very seriously,” he said. “What I do take seriously is the Turkish involvement. The Turks are making noises that they don’t like the Cypriot agreement with Israel, and that I think could be a sign of troubles to come. The Turks themselves can’t make claims on this side of the Mediterranean, but through Cyprus they can.”

That agreement came after Cyprus came to a similar understanding four years ago with Lebanon, though that pact has yet to be approved by the Lebanese parliament. Beirut hurriedly submitted a different map to the UN last year with a maritime border running much farther south than its prior deal with Cyprus.

According to Israeli officials, the cabinet simply drew a straight line from Israel’s border with Lebanon at Rosh Hanikra to the southern point of the 2007 Cyprus-Lebanese agreement in the Mediterranean.

Herb Keinon and Oren Kessler also contributed to this report.


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