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The Lebanon, natural gas and local political equilibria

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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As can be easily foreseen, the huge amount of natural gas that is being discovered throughout the East Mediterranean region is bound to quickly change the whole economic, strategic and military system of the Middle East.

As well as the links between the Greater Middle East and the European Union.

While, before the discoveries of the East Mediterranean region, the primary theme was the network of contacts between the EU West and the Arab-Islamic universe, currently these productive transformations change the internal relations among traditionally producing countries and place  Israel in a new economic context, thus making the EU countries enter this new maritime production system as full members.

Hence it is by no mere coincidence that the first East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGS) was organized in Cairo last January.

The Forum participants included Egypt, Italy, the European Union, Cyprus, Greece, Jordan and the Palestinian National Authority.

However, it also included Israel and this is certainly a fact not to be overlooked.

The logic of the meeting, however, is to create – in the short term – a politically and productively cohesive group, capable of maximizing the financial and political effects of this great operation and also avoiding competitive policies by other neighbouring gas areas.

First and foremost the Persian Gulf, but also the coastal areas of the Horn of Africa and the possible exploration areas off the Yemeni coast.

The Conference was sponsored by Schlumberger and Deloitte and hosted by World Oil, Gas Processing& LNG, Hydrocarbon Processing, Petroleum Economist, Pipeline & Gas Journal and, finally, by Underground Construction.

As can be easily imagined, also the large European and North American companies of the sector were present.

It should be noted that, this year, the Forum has also been slightly brought forward, for obvious reasons of strong political and productive needs.

Two countries, namely Syria and the Lebanon, did not participate and over the last few years they have started to exploit their offshore deposits in an autonomous way.

Obviously Syria will primarily support the Russian and Iranian networks towards Central Asia and China, while the Lebanon will use its offshore deposits, which are largely independent from neighboring countries, so as to revive its economy.

Zohr, the great Egyptian gas field, was discovered in 2015. In the future, however, Egypt also wants to become the hub for all the natural gas passages in the region, both to the EU and to the rest of the world.

The Israeli Leviathan and Karish gas fields have already started production, despite some tensions between the private technical and financial managers and the State of Israel, which wants a different use of a part of extractions.

If Israel’s gas transits through the Balkan line to Vienna, or through the Greek-Albanian network and Italy, it will anyway be fundamental for the European economy and its strategic equilibria.

In all likelihood, Israel’s gas will be even more decisive in the first operational version of the Southern Corridor – the one we have called “Viennese” – than in the Greek-Italian one.

As already mentioned, the Lebanon will mainly play the game against the Israeli gas, for both political and eminently economic reasons.

So far the Lebanon has indicated two Exploration and Production Agreements (EPAs) to a consortium led by Total, with the participation of ENI and Novatek, while Norway and the Lebanon are still collaborating for technical and legal issues through the oil for development program, which will last until 2020.

The Lebanon, however, has also completed its LNG import network for domestic electricity production, a primary problem for the country.

There are also several contracts expiring or to be renewed in the small, but very important market of Lebanese gas.

Political factionalism and the many overt and covert alliances of the Lebanon do not allow to have a homogeneous market of its natural gas.

With specific reference to Cyprus, ENI has discovered Block 6, with the wide Calypso deposit inside, while Exxon-Mobil still “drills” Block 10.

It should be recalled that Turkey has recently blocked the SAIPEM 12000 drillship just a few days after Block 3 was discovered. Turkey, however, has not behaved in the same way with Exxon-Mobil Block 10, in which it does not currently show any direct interest.

The problem is well known: Turkey believes that every exploration and processing-selling activity of all Cypriot gas should benefit both island’s communities and hence not only the Greek one.

The Cypriot government is dealing with Total for Block 11 and with ENI and Total for Block 6, but its real big problem is Aphrodite, the gas field  that should be connected to Egypt with a pipeline enabling Egypt to liquefy and transport gas to end markets.

Meanwhile Israel has already started production in 70% of its Leviathan fields, while the Karish and Tamimgas fields have been fully financed and are now operational.

Egypt’s Parliament has also voted for the creation of a new national natural gas Authority and already receives the LNG extracted by ENI in Zahr.

Hence currently the interests of the various gas producing countries tend to coincide and the Conference about which we are talking is very similar to the creation of what in the past – when economy still existed – was called “cartel”.

A cartel that depends, however, on the future distribution networks in Europe, as well as on the possible choice of some players to play the very “American-style” game of shale gas, and on the moves of the Russian Federation, which is entering this market in many regions. A cartel that finally also depends on the reactions of the Iran-Qatar axis and, hence, of the Saudi system that organizes the Emirates’ natural gas.

A very interesting fact was the request made by all participants to create an international gas organization in the region.

A new OPEC of natural gas?

Too early to say, but the idea is still in the minds of many Forum participants.

According to many Chinese analysts, this is highly probable.

It is worth recalling that currently the Forum countries already account for 87% of all the East Mediterranean’s natural gas.

Furthermore, the logic of opening to private investment and the “mutual benefit” criterion make this new gas OPEC a powerful attraction for all the new producing countries, which will not fail to join this network in the future.

Apart from geopolitical assessments and considerations which, however, are not currently clear yet.

Neither Israel nor Palestine can export their gas without passing through Egypt. Hence, in the coming years, the reasons for achieving a lasting peace will be much stronger than usual.

Unless, as someone predicts, we are faced with a very technological and utterly ubiquitous terrorism 2.0, which could take the form of the old Palestinian or “global” jihad or, possibly, of a mass anarchic-populist rebellion, but especially in the West.

Not to mention the new relationship between Palestine and Arab or Islamic countries, which would be changed radically by the new financial autonomy of the Palestinian world.

What are the challenges that the Forum countries must face to become stable producers in such an important and geopolitically sensitive market?

A market that tends to saturation, above all because of the structural economic crisis of Western markets.

Firstly, all deposits are in deep water and offshore, which makes extraction much more expensive than usual.

We are not talking about the cost of the North American shale gas, but we are not far off.

In the minds of many Middle East decision-makers, this linkage to the US and Canadian cost cycle can be very dangerous.

This could also force some competitors, outside the East Mediterranean region, to play the geopolitical and military card of the stable price increase, so as to temporarily taking the Eastern marine deposits off the market.

The geopolitical effects are hard to imagine.

Furthermore the infrastructure to put these huge resources on the market is extremely expensive and still very scarcely developed and will probably carry a very high and currently unpredictable geopolitical risk.

In fact, the standard geopolitical risks are well-known: the war in Syria; terrorism, which would certainly find a new area of action; the ambiguity of a vacuous and aimless Europe, which does not yet know what energy it wants to use in the future, undecided between the rhapsodic purchases of US shale gas and the strong tensions between France and Germany on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, with the related recent agreement on the European Directive for gas pipelines (which regards Ukraine).

The Aachen agreement, although certainly being the basis of future links between France and Germany, clashes with the short and medium-term interests of two EU countries that have different energy networks, based on different geopolitics.

Moreover France and Germany are anyway thwarting the EU common energy policy, with the very recent stop of the South Transit East Pyrenees (STEP) between France and Spain.

It is well-known that Spain is currently the country with the highest re-gasification potential in Europe and France plans to fully exploit the already existing networks on its own.

The more energy prices are competitive at the EU edges, the fewer incentives exist for a common energy policy.

Moreover, on the basis of practical calculations, it can be inferred – with some degree of accuracy – that the political risk, combined with structurally high and not yet competitive extraction costs, has left 36% of East Mediterranean’s gas potential still unexplored and untapped.

However, the structure of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, which is already based in Cairo, will be open to everybody including European countries, which could thus escape the grip of a “German-style” energy policy – the last and definitive phase of Southern Europe’s exclusion from the EU centres of power.

For the time being Turkey will not be part of the EMGF.

And it is by no mere coincidence that also the Lebanon will not be a member.

The reason is simple. There are very old tensions between Turkey and Cyprus but, as early as 2003, Turkey has denounced the agreements on maritime borders signed by Cyprus, considering that, according to Turkey, Cyprus – as EU Member State – cannot represent the two local communities, namely the Greek and the Turkish ones, and hence has no full international legal capacity.

Secondly, Turkey believes that Cyprus’ autonomy in defining its Special Economic Zones should be reduced significantly.

Moreover Turkey still thinks that also the current Cypriot Economic Zones are often in areas which are de facto in Turkish waters.

Hence, as early as 2008, Turkey has been rejecting all oil exploration activities in Cyprus and its disputed waters.

Furthermore Turkey intends to promote only its own exploration activities, always in the maritime area attributed to Cyprus.

Turkey’s relations with Greece are certainly not performing better. For years Erdogan has been claiming many Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. Not to mention the air crash, caused by an attack of Turkish fighters, which cost the life of a Greek pilot in April 2018.

As early as his visit to Greece in 2017, Erdogan has been constantly calling for the reform of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

This refers to Turkey’s taking possession of the border areas with Greece that – according to the long-standing Turkish polemic in this regard -were “taken away” by Westerners to be given to Greece.

Erdogan strongly argues against Greece’s right of oil and gas extraction in certain sea areas, again on the border between the two countries, albeit  outside the Cypriot region, that he believes are part of a new finally legitimate border between Turkey and the Greek islands.

Turkey does not even agree on the current relations between Greece and Libya, given that Turkey repeatedly argues with Greece for its direct oil operations on the Libyan continental shelf, which it believes it can claim for a greater share.

However, there is also a further dispute between Turkey and Egypt.

Erdogan, in fact, has never fully accepted the coup of the Egyptian military services that in 2013 – in eleven days only -overthrew Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood’s government in Cairo.

Moreover, at the time, Erdogan -who has still many links with the Ikhwan – even asked the UN Security Council to impose specific sanctions on  Egypt and its internal operations against a government that certainly toppled Morsi’s democratically elected government, which anyway resulted from a great but obscure media, political and strategic operation, namely the Arab springs.

It is worth recalling that a deputy-director of CIA, Michael Morell, wrote in one of his memoirs, that the “Arab springs” were orchestrated and engineered by the Agency to foster popular uprisings “against Al Qaeda”.

The results of this crazy reasoning is before us to be seen. Erdogan, however, does not give up and often demands the release of all political prisoners held in Egyptian jails.

Yet the tension of this true mad card of the East Mediterranean region, namely Turkey, mounts even with Israel, which was once its best ally throughout the Middle East, when Turkey still was the heir of the old “secular” Republic of Atatűrk, with the young Turks who trained to seize power in the many Lodges of the Grand Orient of Italy scattered throughout the Ottoman Empire.

We can also recall the tension between Israel and Turkey during the Operation “Cast Lead” of 2008-2009 or the issue of the Marmara ships in 2010.

The situation between the two countries has never returned to normalcy, despite Israel’s apologies to Turkey, quickly organized by the United States in 2013 and the subsequent normalization of 2016, partly justified by the new energy scenario emerging in the East Mediterranean region.

Then there was the expulsion of the Israeli Ambassador from Ankara in 2018and Erdogan accusing Israel of “genocide”. Finally the choice, which Turkey considers strongly prompted and desired by Israel, to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

Hence, on the one hand, the East Mediterranean’s oil and gas extraction requires a very high degree of collaboration between all the parties involved, while, on the other, it is the exactly the new Eastern wealth to create new rifts and fuel old tensions.

In fact the perception of an “aggressive” Turkish behavior is currently extremely widespread among all the participants in the Cairo Forum (but obviously not in Italy).

This tension, however, also affects the Lebanon, where many leaders still believe that the Forum is primarily targeted against their country.

In short, especially with this new and recent government led by Saad Hariri, the Lebanon believes it can manage, on its own, to effectively extract and monetize its maritime gas resources.

In fact, some Ministers of this Hariri-Hezbollah’s government maintain that the Lebanon could be connected to Europe through Northern Turkey (and this is another temptation for Turkey) via the Arab Gas Pipeline, although obviously, the expansion of this network with the pipeline in Syria is to be completed yet.

However, there would also be the line through Egypt, again using the Arab Gas Pipeline.

In short, the Lebanon thinks it has been thrown out, but it will soon realize that there is the possibility – also and especially with a Forum in which there is also Israel – to use at best and, above all, soon the distribution systems put in place by the Forum.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Bids open for Somalia’s first-ever oil block licensing round

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Somalia has announced that it is opening licensing rounds for seven offshore oil blocks. This comes days after the Federal Government of Somalia approved the board members of the newly established Somali Petroleum Authority (SPA), which will serve to be the regulatory body of Somalia’s oil and gas industry.

Somalia’s Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Abdirashid M. Ahmed stated that the establishment of a regulator leadership is the first critical step of the implementation of Somalia’s petroleum law which was passed earlier this year and signed by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmaajo”.

The Petroleum Law asserts that the regulatory body serves to design a financial and managerial system that fosters international competition and investment into Somalia’s oil and gas industry. While also ensuring the citizens of Somalia, and the Federal Member States see their fair share of oil and gas revenue based on the revenue-sharing agreement.

Somalia has been plagued with civil war, drought and famine for nearly three decades, tapping into Somalia’s vast oil reserves which are estimated to be approximately 30 billion barrels would greatly contribute to the rebuilding and the development of the country’s infrastructure, security, and the economic and social sectors. Exploration for oil in the East African nation started well before the nations collapse in 1991. ExxonMobil and Shell previously had rights to five offshore oil blocks in Somalia and has recently renewed its previous lease agreement with the government of Somalia. Both companies have agreed to pay $1.7 million per month in rent for the leased offshore blocks.

The Office of Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources stated that the 7 blocks which are up for bidding process are among “the most prospective areas for hydrocarbon exploration and production in Somalia”

The licensing round will take place between August 4th, 2020, and March 12th, 2021.

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Armenia’s attack against Tovuz is also an attack against Europe’s energy security

Dr. Esmira Jafarova

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The recent escalation of tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, this time along the international border in the direction of the Tovuz district of Azerbaijan in the aftermath of an armed attack launched by Armenia on July12–14, 2020,had been brewing for some time before finally boiling over into full-fledged military clashes, the worst in recent years, that caused causalities and destruction on both sides. Azerbaijan lost more than 10 servicemen, including one general and a 76-year-old civilian. There are many reasons why this attack happened in this particular border area (and not along the Line of Contact, as usual) and at this particular time, but in this piece I want specifically to focus on one of them and, in concurrence with other internationally recognized scholars in this field, assert that this attack against Azerbaijan should be considered as an attack against Europe’s energy security and well-being.

To begin, a brief review of the history of recent developments in conflict resolution testifies that, although the year 2019 was relatively incident free along the Line of Contact between the Armed Forces of Armenia and Azerbaijan, and for the first time in many years mutual visits of journalists took pace, the year was also identified as the “lost year for the conflict settlement” owing to the lack of progress in the negotiations. This absence of progress was accompanied by incendiary rhetoric employed by Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan who, having ascended to power on the back of the many alluring promises of the so-called “Velvet Revolution,” found himself grappling to deliver on those ambitious reform pledges. The harbingers of heightening hostility were seen in Pashinyan’s infamous declaration during the pan-Armenian games held in Khankendi on August 5,2019, when he said that “Nagorno-Karabakh is Armenia, and that is all;” as well as his continuous insistence on changing the negotiation format –already established by the relevant decisions of the OSCE –to include representatives of the puppet regime in the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region as an independent party to the peace negotiations.

The year 2020 started off with the January meeting of the Foreign Ministers in Geneva, and in April and June two virtual meetings were held because of COVID-19 lockdowns; however, hopes for any positive progress quickly subsided in the wake of other negative developments. The so-called “parliamentary and presidential elections” that were held by Armenia in the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan on March31, 2020, were condemned by the international community. These mock elections later culminated in the Shusha provocation,in which the “newly elected president” of the puppet regime in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan was “inaugurated” in Shusha – a city that carries great moral significance for Azerbaijan. The last straw in a hostile build-up was the denial by Pashinyan of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s comments about a staged, step-by-step solution to the conflict; Pashinyan denied that this was ever the subject of negotiations. The very recent threats by the Armenian Ministry of Defense, which publicly threatened “to occupy new advantageous positions” in Azerbaijan, further testified to the increasingly militaristic mood among Armenia’s upper echelons.

This litany of discouraging events relating to the peace process over the last year and a half in some ways heralded what we witnessed on July12–14, 2020.This attack against Azerbaijan along the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan reflects the deep frustration of the Pashinyan regime in its inability to bring about the promised changes. Economic problems were heightened by the COVID-19-induced challenge and decreasing foreign assistance, and this was all happening against the backdrop of Azerbaijan’s increasing successes domestically, economically and internationally. Azerbaijan has long been established as an important provider of energy security and sustainable development for Europe through the energy projects that it is implementing together with its international partners. The Baku–Tbilisi–Supsa Western Export (1998) and Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (2005) oil pipelines and Baku–Tbilisi–Erzurum (2006) gas pipeline have enhanced Azerbaijan’s role as an energy producing and exporting country, and the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) is already becoming a reality. This 3500-km-long Corridor comprises four segments – the Shah Deniz-II project, Southern Caucasus Pipeline Extension (SCPX), Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) and its final portion, the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP). The Corridor passes through seven countries – Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania and Italy – with Italy being the final destination receiving Caspian gas. Turkey is already receiving gas via TANAP and is contracted to accept up to 6 billion cubic meters of gas via this pipeline. Europe is expected to receive 10 billion cubic meters of Azerbaijani gas per year, and the first gas has already arrived on Albanian territory. The SGC is scheduled to be fully operational by fall 2020 and TAP is almost complete. Things are progressing uninhibitedly and even the COVID-19 pandemic has been unable topreventthe success of the SGC. This Corridor stands as one of the guarantors of Europe’s energy security by providing diversification of energy sources and routes, even despite Europe’s Green Deal, which also acknowledges the continent’s long-term demand for gas.

Such critical infrastructure, vital for Europe’s energy security, passes close to the border area that includes the Tovuz district attacked by the Armed Forces of the Republic of Armenia on July12–14. Armenia is the only country in the South Caucasus that is isolated from these regional energy projects owing to its policy of expansion and occupation. It is thus the only country that does not have anything to losefrom creating chaos and destruction around this critical energy infrastructure. Jealousy and the feeling of self-imposed isolation from all regional cooperation initiatives have no doubt increased Armenia’s hostility toward these energy projects. Further vivid evidence of Armenia’s belligerence against Azerbaijan’s energy infrastructure was provided by its threat to attack the Mingachevir Dam, a civilian infrastructure project that is also a vital component of Azerbaijan’s largest hydroelectric power plant. Hydroelectric power comprises the largest component in Azerbaijan’s renewable energy potential, today standing at around 17–18%ofthe overall energy balance of the country. It is not difficult to imagine the magnitude of civilian causalities in case such a destruction materializes. 

By conducting this act of aggression against Azerbaijan along the international border in the direction of Tovuz, Armenia wanted firstly, to divert attention from its own internal problems. Secondly, the regime desired to disguise its failures on the international front, especially recently when Azerbaijan initiated the summoning of a special session of the United Nations General Assembly related to COVID-19,convened on July 10, that was supported by more than 130 members of the UN. Thirdly, Armenia wanted to drag in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) against Azerbaijan by invoking Article 4, which states: “… if one of the States Parties is subjected to aggression by any state or group of states, then this will be considered as aggression against all States Parties to this Treaty…”.Fourthly, and the central thesis of this article, Armenia intended to target critical energy infrastructure implemented by Azerbaijan and its international partners, thereby jeopardizing the energy security of not only the neighboring region, but also of the greater European continent. The aforementioned existing oil and gas infrastructure aside, the SGC is set to be fully operational by fall 2020, and this multibillion-dollar megaproject offers economic, social and many other benefits to all participating countries involved in the construction and implementation of this project. Any damage to this critical infrastructure would deal a heavy blow to the current and future sustainable development of Europe.

Europe must therefore be vigilant regarding such provocations. International actors, including the European Union,OSCE Minsk Group, United Nations, United States, and the Russian Federation, called for an immediate cessation of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, given what is at stake,including this time the crucial energy infrastructure, had Armenia’sattack not been proportionately parried by the Azerbaijani Armed Forces, the statement made by the European Union about this recent military attack could have contained stronger language beyond just “…urging both sides to stop the armed confrontation, refrain from action and rhetoric that provoke tension, and undertake immediate measures to prevent further escalation… .” Naming and shaming the aggressor appropriately is indispensable in this situation. As Mr. Hikmat Hajiyev, Head of Foreign Policy Department of the Presidential Administration and Adviser to the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan on Foreign Affairs, also noted: “the EU should distinguish between the aggressor and the subject of aggression.”

In the 21st century, the international community should not tolerate such flagrant violations of international law; disrespect of UN Security Council resolutions (822, 853, 874, and 884) and other relevant international documents calling for an end to the occupation of Azerbaijani territories; and the feeling of impunity in instigating an attack against a sovereign state, a neighbor, and a crucial player in the realization of critical energy infrastructure projects key to Europe’s own energy security. Azerbaijan has long put up with such aggression and the occupation of its internationally recognized territories in Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven adjacent districts, and has opted for negotiations toward a peaceful solution of the conflict. Yet the aggressor cannot be allowed to continue its attacks against other parts of Azerbaijan– this time Tovuz –thereby jeopardizing not only the latter, but also energy security and sustainable development of the greater European continent just because such provocations seem to offer an escape from the regime’s domestic and external problems. Such practices should be condemned in the strongest possible terms. This should be done not only for the sake of Azerbaijan and regional security in the South Caucasus, but in the name of Europe’s own energy security and well-being. 

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Palestine Plays Regional Power Politics with Proposed Energy Deal

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Faed Mustafa, Palestine’s ambassador in Ankara, Turkey

When Faed Mustafa, Palestine’s ambassador in Ankara, expressed interest in June in negotiating with Turkey an agreement on the delineation of maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean and cooperating on the exploitation of natural resources, he was repositioning Palestine in the larger struggle for regional dominance and the future of his state.

“We also have rights in the Mediterranean. Palestine has shares in oil and gas located in the eastern Mediterranean. We are ready to cooperate in these areas and sign a deal,” Mr. Mustafa said.

Mr. Mustafa did not spell it out, but Palestine would bring the Gaza Marine gas deposit, 36 kilometers off the Gazan coast, to the table. Discovered in 1999, the field, believed to have reserves of 31 billion cubic meters, remains unexplored as a result of multiple armed Israeli-Palestinian clashes, Israeli obstruction, and repeated changes in the consortium that would have ultimately exploited the field.

Palestine’s efforts to hook up with Turkey, at a time when relations with Israel have all but broken down, coincide with stepped up Israeli attempts to stymie Turkish inroads in Palestine paved by support for activists in Jerusalem and funding of historic and cultural facilities, in the wake of US President Donald J. Trump’s 2018 recognition of the city as Israel’s capital.

The Palestinian move also is a ploy to counter several steps taken by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to confront Turkey in Jerusalem and the eastern Mediterranean, facilitate a US plan to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that endorses annexation, and influence the succession of ailing 84-year old Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed last week in a speech celebrating the change of status of Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia – originally built as a Greek Orthodox church in 537 AD, then renovated into a mosque before becoming a museum by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in 1935 – to a mosque once again this month, that it would be “the harbinger of the liberation of the Al-Aqsa mosque.”

Al-Aqsa on the Harm-e-Sharif or Temple Mount in Jerusalem is Islam’s third holiest shrine. Backed by Israel, Saudi Arabia has sought to muscle its way into the Jordanian-controlled endowment that administers the Harm-e-Sharif.

A Palestine hook-up with Turkey could complicate Palestinian membership of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, dubbed the OPEC of Mediterranean gas, that also includes Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, and Jordan. France has applied for membership in the Cairo-based grouping while the United States is seeking observer status.

Founded in January and backed by the UAE, the Forum is virulently opposed to Turkish attempts to redraw the maritime boundaries in the region on the back of an agreement with Libya. Turkey refused to join the Forum.

While it is unlikely that the Gaza field will be operational any time soon, production would reduce Palestinian dependence on Israel. Palestinian officials said early this year that they were discussing with Israel an extension of Israeli pipelines to send gas from Israeli gas fields to Palestine but that the talks, contrary to Israeli assertions, did not include development of the Gaza field.

In a twist of irony, Qatar, the UAE’s nemesis, would support a pipeline agreement by guaranteeing Palestinian payments for the gas. The Israeli pipeline along a 40-kilometer route adjacent to the Gaza border with three pumping stations would enable Gaza to operate a 400 MW power plant in a region that has, at the best of times, an energy supply of 15 hours a day.

The status of the talks remains unclear given an apparent delay of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s annexation plans amid international condemnation and US insistence that the Israeli leader postpone his move that had been scheduled for July 1.

Qatar reportedly threatened to cut off millions of dollars in aid to Gaza, provided in coordination with the Israeli government, if the Jewish state pressed ahead with annexation.

In June, Israel  approved the transfer of US$50 million from Qatar to Gaza in a bid to dial back mounting tension with militants in the Strip that could spark renewed military confrontation as both Israel and Palestine struggle to get a grip on the coronavirus.

Some Palestinian analysts see the pipeline deal as an attempt by the Palestine Authority (PA) to enhance its influence in Gaza and undermine Hamas – its Islamist rival that controls the Strip – by a significant contribution to a surge in the power supply and a dramatic reduction of the cost of electricity. The risk, these analysts say, is that the pipeline would increase Palestinian dependence on Israel.

Economist Nasr Abdel Karim argued that Israel would only allow enhanced flows of gas, including from the Gaza field, if it leads to an even deeper split between the territory and the West Bank.

“Israel will not allow the Palestinians to benefit from the gas field for economic and political reasons. Israel might allow this in one case — if this plan is part of a bigger project to develop Gaza’s economy so that it splits from the PA and the West Bank,” Mr. Abdel Karim said.

Author’s note: An initial version of this story was first published in Inside Arabia

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