Israel’s Navy Expanding to Defend Offshore Gas

by Gedalyah Reback

Israel has expanded its relationship with Greece for two reasons. The first is because Greece is the natural alternative to having an alliance with Turkey, which is falling apart. The second is Greece is the natural patron of Cyprus, the other country about to win big from natural gas fields discovered in the Mediterranean Sea. Israel is planning to develop several fields, so naturally they will want a strong relationship with the other country nearby, Cyprus. The fields are in the “territorial waters” of the two countries, that is the area of ocean or sea water that is within legal range of a country’s coastline.

But that also involves Lebanon. Lebanon is nowhere near as advanced as Israel in its ability to explore for mineral deposits offshore. But now that Israel has hit the jackpot, Lebanon is making claims that some of the fields are in Lebanese water. The maps would have to be manipulated to make that true, but that hasn’t stopped Hezbollah and the rest of the Lebanese government from making an issue out of it. Hezbollah added fuel to the fire, threatening Israel if it crossed into the ambiguously defined Lebanese waters. In kind, Israel promised it would defend its gas deposits with force.

There is teeth to the Israeli words while little to Hezbollah’s. Despite what little naval options Hezbollah or Lebanon would have, Israel is stacking up. The navy is negotiating with South Korea and Hyundai to buy a bunch of new frigates. Israel recently had a spat with South Korea’s military industry because Jerusalem chose to buy a squadron of training planes from Italy instead of the Koreans. Filling the need to bulk up the navy and stay on good terms with South Korea is like killing two birds with one stone. Some even want Israel to stock up on bigger sorts of ships like destroyers and cruisers.

Israel is also replacing its joint naval war games with the Turks by conducting new ones with the Greeks. Greece is a patron to tiny Cyprus, so any business or military affairs happening on the island resonate in Athens. Greece is equally involved in the cultivation of the natural gas deposits as Cyprus or Israel, so the Greek navy will be the first natural ally for the Israelis in the Mediterranean.

Cyprus might end up mediating between the Israelis and the Lebanese on a maritime border. Cyprus already has working agreements with both countries on exploration, but both could be undermined if either country cannot begin working offshore. Lebanon refuses to ratify its agreement with Cyprus until it gets clarity on its southern border, forcing Cyprus to get pro-active about solving the dispute. Israel and Lebanon are also beginning to cooperate in other ways on the waters of the Mediterranean Sea – blocking Palestinian activists from crossing into Israeli waters on Land Day and Nakba Day. There is room to settle the dispute, but it might have more to do with Hezbollah’s willingness to cook up an issue to fight about then actually taking a pragmatic approach to the issue.

Turkey is the big reason though to bulk up. Initially you’d think I’m talking about the Flotilla incident in 2010, when the Israeli navy boarded a ship and killed nine Turkish activists on their way to protest the blockade of Gaza. The reason to buy bigger boats has more to do with Turkey’s relations with Cyprus. Turkey has a tense relationship with Cyprus. In 1974, Turkey invade Cyprus and carved out the northern third of the island as a separate country for Turkish residents – Northern Cyprus. Only Turkey recognizes the country, and in September 2011 signed a joint exploration deal with the tiny country to search for gas off the Northern Cypriot shore.

Turkey has had fierce rhetoric since and its own naval maneuvers, rattling its sabers in the direction of the Greek, southern Cyprus working with the Israelis. In December, Turkey drove ships toward the fields claimed by Israel and the southern Cypriots and fired in the direction of the fields. Israel and Cyprus have asked for help from the US to keep the Turks back, but the tensions are hot as Turkey seeks to stake a claim for itself and its tiny Northern Cypriot neighbor. The International Crisis Group in the beginning of April accused Turkey of a series of provocations against southern Cyprus, and told Turkey to discipline itself.

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