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Instead of Relying on Rogue States like Russia for Energy, the West Should Look to Israel and its Democratic Partners

Whether it’s reducing Western dependence on Russian gas or Iranian oil, the West is way overdue for a course correction.
[additional-authors]
April 19, 2022
The first drilling rig in the Noa gas field. Photo by Ran Arda/Wikimedia commons under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

During the last century, energy has played a decisive role in the political-military struggles that emerged in the Middle East. It was in February 1944 when the head of the US Petroleum Reserves Corporation, Everette Lee DeGolyer, pronounced that “the center of gravity of world oil production is shifting to the Middle East.”

In 2022, we have two related centers of gravity for energy production, and they both threaten the West: Russia and Iran. In the case of Russia, the European dependence on Russian gas has undermined the West’s ability to isolate Vladimir Putin for his savage invasion of Ukraine. In the case of Iran, under the guise of a flawed nuclear deal, the West is preparing to remove sanctions on the world’s #1 sponsor of terror and a major oil producer.

If there is one lesson the West should have learned in 2022, it is the danger of relying on rogue states for something as fundamental as energy. The Ukraine crisis in particular has illustrated just how vitally important the diversification of the sources of European gas has become and the urgency of finding alternatives to Russian gas, if only to reduce Moscow’s leverage over Europe and the NATO alliance.

A pivotal moment in reducing that leverage began to emerge in 2009, with the discovery of immense reserves of natural gas off Israel’s coast that reached 381 trillion cubic feet of gas or roughly 5 percent of the world’s gas reserves. This came at a time when European energy consumption was becoming increasingly reliant on natural gas and less dependent upon oil and coal.

Experts who looked at Israel’s offshore geology have concluded with certainty that much more gas was present. It only required further investment to extract it. After the discovery of the immense Leviathan gas field with 18 trillion cubic feet of gas, a team of MIT geologists, who analyzed the Levant basin, reached the conclusion that there were six more Leviathans within Israel’s territorial waters that could reach 108 trillion cubic feet of gas if proven.  

After the discovery of the immense Leviathan gas field with 18 trillion cubic feet of gas, a team of MIT geologists concluded that there were six more Leviathans within Israel’s territorial waters.

The new discoveries near Israel and Cyprus were made by Noble Energy, a Houston-based American firm that was relatively small in comparison with the major energy corporations in the US. An undersea pipeline was envisioned to transport the gas to the European market across the Mediterranean at a distance of 1180 miles, from Israel to Cyprus and Greece. The European Union got behind the idea of the Mediterranean pipeline.

Moving gas into Europe along the ocean floor for hundreds of miles was not unprecedented. By comparison the two Nord Stream undersea pipelines carrying Russian gas under the Baltic Sea to Germany were 764 miles. The new plan for the Mediterranean route included extending what came to be known as the EastMed pipeline from Greece to Southern Italy. This way Israeli gas would reach Europe. The EU designated the pipeline a project of common interest (PCI) which entitled it to many bureaucratic benefits.

An agreement covering the proposed EastMed pipeline was signed in 2020 by Israel, Cyprus and Greece. The completion of the pipeline in 2025 and the export of Eastern Mediterranean gas to European markets would serve the European Union’s interest in diversifying its sources of natural gas, which was highly reliant on gas imported from the Russian Federation.  Some 40 per cent of the EU’s natural gas supplies were under Moscow’s control.

An agreement covering the proposed EastMed pipeline was signed in 2020 by Israel, Cyprus and Greece… Unfortunately, the Biden administration withdrew its support for the pipeline in January 2022 for reasons that are not entirely clear.

What was needed were much larger investors in Eastern Mediterranean gas. To that end, the American energy giant, CHEVRON (Standard Oil of California) stepped up and completed its acquisition of Noble Energy in October 2020. Everything was set for a new EastMed gas pipeline to Europe that would be connected to a trusted ally like Israel.

Unfortunately, the Biden administration withdrew its support for the EastMed pipeline in January 2022 for reasons that are not entirely clear. As the crisis over Ukraine escalated in 2022, forward movement on the EastMed pipeline could have given the West needed leverage for the diplomatic struggle with Moscow. Now that leverage, instead of being under the sea, is up in the air.

Over the years, because of Western complacence, Russia has systematically brought Germany under its influence in the area of natural gas. It nominated the former chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schroder, to serve on the board of Gazprom, the Russian state gas company from 2005 onward. An important alternative to Russian gas could have been nuclear power which produced about one quarter of Germany’s electricity back in 2011.

But after the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, Chancellor Merkel began closing down Germany’s nuclear reactors; there were seventeen reactors in 2011, but now there are only three. Thus, Germany’s dependence on imported gas has only grown and today, Germany has emerged as the single largest customer for Russian gas in Europe, with 23% of its total gas exports going to Germany, alone.

In 2018, at least 70% of Russia’s natural gas exports were delivered to EU member states. But they were not equally dependent on Russia for more than 50% of their gas imports; by comparison, eleven EU states only needed Russian gas for less than 10% of their consumption.

These numbers are important. The impact of a Russian gas cutoff or reduction of supply will vary with the degree of dependence of the European state in question. Similarly, the policies they will advocate for dealing with Russian gas will depend on the extent to which that gas affects their economy. Even with their differences, the EU Foreign Policy Chief, Josep Borrell, was able to voice a united policy for Europe, in January, 2022, based on his view that “we must reduce our dependency on Russian energy.” In the course of the year, it became clearer that Russian gas sales were helping President Putin pay for his war in Eastern Europe against Ukraine.

Coming up with a solution to the Russian gas question for Europe also has an Israeli angle. The new Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, modified Israeli energy policy; it halted the granting of licenses for natural gas exploration for one year while it devoted its efforts to work on renewable energy, like solar power and wind power.

Whatever the excuses that were offered by the Israeli Ministry of Energy, there was an increasing risk of their jeopardizing one of the great economic opportunities of the State of Israel in decades.

With the postponement of Israel’s gas pipeline to Europe, Israeli gas is still used for its Middle Eastern partners, particularly Egypt and Jordan. With the anticipated improvement of Israeli ties to Turkey, Ankara could emerge as an export hub for Israeli gas in the future. Gas will be a critical factor in the international politics of the Middle East, but not in the way originally expected when Israel’s Mediterranean deposits were first discovered.

Clearly there is a joint interest across the Western alliance to increase the supply of natural gas to the West as a whole. Increased supplies of gas would help drive down its price just as many states are suffering from unprecedented increases in the price of gas and oil. Failing to complete the EastMed pipeline would be a strategic blunder that will only exacerbate the energy crisis at a time when it has already escalated with the outbreak of a major European war.

Whether it’s reducing Western dependence on Russian gas or Iranian oil, the West is way overdue for a course correction.


Ambassador Gold is the President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as the Director-General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and as its Ambassador to the United Nations.

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