Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a strong, uncompromising pro-Hamas stance in the latter’s military conflict with Israel last week. In so doing, he torpedoed any potential in the near future for possible joint Israeli/Turkish exploration of the Eastern Mediterranean regarding natural gas exploration and pipeline construction.
Although targeted against Israel, the suspension is likely to hit Turkey far worse than it hits the Jewish state. Israel already has reached deals with the European Union and individual countries in the region, as well as Lebanon (surprisingly), to develop natural gas resources and to construct pipelines to Europe, partly to offset Russian production limited by Ukraine-related sanctions. Turkey has been less successful, entering into a bizarre agreement with one of the parties claiming governance of Libya, to share rights to develop the entire Eastern Mediterranean, which has been roundly dismissed.
Last week, Erdogan declared that Hamas is not a terrorist organization and that Israel is perpetrating war crimes in Gaza. He even hinted that he might declare war on Israel and send his military to Gaza.
Few listeners believed him. Among other reasons, Turkey has immense internal problems and Turkey is a member of NATO. Israel is not a member of NATO, but has numerous contacts and programs with that organization, so any unwarranted aggression by Turkey against Israel will not be positively received by the rest of NATO’s members. Further, Turkey has restive Kurdish rebels on its Eastern border. Transporting Turkey’s army to Israel through that region so Erdogan can fight the Jewish state would be beyond foolish.
Erdogan however can’t contain himself. Much like other second and third tier world leaders around today, he needs constantly to shine the spotlight on himself. In doing so, he collapsed whatever possibility existed of Turkish-Israeli cooperation on much needed energy reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel can now resume discussions with Greece and Cyprus about an Eastern Mediterranean Gas Pipeline, which was shelved in 2022 but could still be revived. Should that occur, Turkey will receive nothing and Erdogan’s sabre rattling will all be for naught.
Given the convulsions in the energy market and the uncertainty over future Russian energy availability, the Middle East’s ability to provide an alternative energy source to Europe looms large. Israel possesses natural gas reserves of approximately 750 billion cubic meters. Despite the Hamas war, Israel is pressing forward with natural gas development. On Sunday, it awarded 12 licenses to six companies for offshore natural gas development, including Italy’s Eni, Azerbaijan’s New Med and possibly BP.
An old adage goes that “wars are fought with silver bullets,” meaning that in order to properly prosecute a war a nation must make sure its economy remains strong. Israel seems poised to do that, while non-combatant Turkey appears to want to shoot itself in the foot. After the Hamas, and possibly Hezbollah, wars are over for Israel, however they turn out, natural gas may prove to be an economic lifeline for it and its people. It shall serve no such purpose for Turkey although, with a little more forethought and true leadership by its President, it certainly could have.