There are two camps regarding the subsea natural gas “peace pipeline” between Israel and Turkey: those who believe that economics trumps political differences, and those who do not. While the international business sector firmly belongs to the first camp, current and former Israeli officials, for the most part, seem to gravitate towards the latter.
Clear to both sides, however, is that the pipeline is not going to help restart the formerly warm Israeli-Turkish strategic relationship the U.S. desires. It is irresponsible to hypothesize that the construction of a “peace pipeline” would lead to the resumption of joint military drills and lucrative bilateral defense contracts in the private sector, much less intensive cooperation on Syria. The warm relations of the 1990s and early 2000s are certainly not coming back.
Nowhere was this schism more apparent than at this week’s Israel Energy and Business Convention. Former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Matthew Bryza, who currently serves as a board member at Turkish pipeline operator Turcas Petrol, which proposed the $2.5 billion project in September, told the audience he senses a willingness in Turkey “to move forward,” was confident enough to hypothesize that the diplomatic impasse “will be resolved in tandem with a pipeline agreement.”
Former director general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Alon Liel sees the situation differently. The gradual decline in Israel-Turkey relations that culminated in the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, which suspended military and diplomatic cooperation, is not something that can be resolved through economic cooperation alone, given Prime Minister Erdogan’s increasingly belligerent rhetoric against Israel.
“As long as Erdogan is Prime Minister, it won’t be possible to do a project or an agreement at the strategic level,” he told the convention. “If we isolate Erdogan and he is out of the picture, the chances or reaching an agreement are much greater.”
Liel’s conviction that a political resolution must come before a pipeline can be conceived is shared by others who have served in the foreign ministry. They doubt that the private sector can pressure Erdogan into a deal.
Regardless of whether or not this stance more accurately assesses the current situation, it signals a total lack of will to bow to Ankara’s conditions for reconciliation. Private companies may be in the driver’s seat when it comes to pipeline projects, but commercial deals cannot repair such a broken bilateral relationship. For American national security and strategic interests in the region, which relied on Israeli-Turkish military cooperation as a buffer against the neighborhood’s extremist regimes, this stark reality is yet another indication that President Obama’s strong push for rapprochement is moot.
A pipeline project could, however, further Washington’s security interest in preventing Turkey from turning to Russia in the face of the deteriorating U.S.-Turkey dynamic. Just last week, Erdogan once again asked President Vladimir Putin for membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which provides for military cooperation between Russia, China and several former-Soviet states. This, in addition to Turkey flirting with the idea of buying a long-range anti-missile system from China, is a particularly troubling development for the U.S. relationship with Ankara.
If feasible, a Turkey-Israel pipeline could drive a powerful wedge between Moscow and Ankara. Russia’s political leverage in Eurasia depends in part on its position as the European Union’s largest natural gas supplier. Most of the gas that Turkey consumes is Russian. But as the energy hub that transports Russian gas to Europe through a system of pipelines, any effort on Turkey’s part to diversify its own supply sources may have a ripple effect. Introducing Israeli gas into Turkey’s mix could open a door to Europe, reducing Russia’s share in an already stagnating market.
While a natural gas pipeline from Israel to Turkey would certainly serve U.S. national security interests, the prospects for such cooperation are quickly fading. Decisions about Israel’s gas export routes must be made as soon, given that the inevitable dominance of American shale gas and the proliferation of emerging markets will soon produce a natural gas glut. Ultimately, such a geopolitically and economically advantageous project cannot happen absent a political process.
Allison Good is a Jerusalem based freelance journalist