(February 24, 2012) Israel: ‘Gas is our strategic interest for new partnerships’.
How do you survive when you’re surrounded by enemies, as is Israel? You win allies among the nations that surround your enemies.
This increasingly successful Israeli approach — dubbed the periphery strategy — exploits an arsenal of Israeli assets that its new-found allies need: Israel’s military, its counterterrorism skills, its technology, and especially of late, its surprising wealth of hydrocarbons.
Israel’s periphery strategy is nothing new. After Israel survived its war of independence in the late 1940s, when it was invaded by six neighbouring Arab armies, Israel set about winning friends in the Middle East among non-Arabs. In this it succeeded wildly — Israel won friends among black African states, to which it transferred water-conserving agricultural technologies; among small non-Arab Muslim countries and ethnic groups that were at odds with the Arab states, and with Iran and Turkey, two non-Arab regional powers that became full-blown military allies.
Then the strategy all but collapsed with the OPEC oil boycott of 1973. “Stay friends with Israel and we’ll cut you off from oil,” the Arab states told the many poor oil-dependent countries that had relations with Israel. Poor countries felt they had no choice but to comply. Israel was from that point mostly abandoned, its former friends suddenly harsh critics at the United Nations, where they voted en masse to condemn Israel in one Arab-sponsored resolution after another.
Now Israel’s periphery strategy is back big time, thanks largely to hydrocarbon diplomacy. Apart from a major oil find in its interior, Israel has known gas reserves of some $130-billion in the Mediterranean, with some estimating that twice as much will materialize as exploration continues. Israel’s Mediterranean neighbour, the island nation of Cyprus, is also discovering immense amounts of gas in the sea bed adjacent to Israel’s. The two are now developing their gas jointly, with plans to export it to Europe or Asia or both. Greece, which may have more oil and gas in its extensive Mediterranean waters than either, is now talking of joining Cyprus and Israel in joint ventures.
The sea change in the attitude of Greece and Cyprus is breathtaking. Until recently, these two ethnically Greek nations were frigidly cold toward Israel, partly because they believed their economic interests lay in the more populous Arab world, partly because they feared for the safety of the 250,000-member Greek community in Egypt if they were to establish good relations with Israel.
Today the Greek calculus has changed. Not only did Greek trade with Arab states fail to blossom, the Greek presence in Egypt has all but vanished. Egypt’s Greek-owned industries were nationalized; Egypt’s Greeks were persecuted for their Christian faith. The official remaining count for Egyptian Greeks, once the most affluent and influential minority in Egypt, is but 3,000.
In contrast, Greeks now have common cause with Israel in exploiting their hydrocarbon riches and in defending them — Turkey, an enemy of the two Greek nations as well as Israel, has vowed to stop both Cyprus and Greece from developing their hydrocarbons on the basis of long-standing territorial claims. The Israeli-Greek-Cypriot alliance is likely strong enough to stand up to Turkey and allow these new-found friends to profit together.
But for Israel, profit is only the half of it, as a senior advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu told the press in an interview last week, when the two were in Cyprus to further the nations’ hydrocarbon co-operation. “Gas is our strategic interest. It is … a diplomatic tool for creating new partnerships, first in our region, as well as with the great powers of India and China.”
Israel views Cyprus and Greece as part of the “Western arc” of its periphery strategy, along with other European countries such as Christian Romania and Bulgaria, and Muslim Albania, which has been a standout defender of Israel in the United Nations. Israel now also has allies to the east, such as Georgia and Azerbaijan in Central Asia. And as part of its southern diplomacy, Israel recently established an East African alliance with predominantly Christian Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and South Sudan designed to fend off Iran and Islamist terrorism. Israel’s stock in East Africa is particularly high because of its role in gaining independence for South Sudan, the world’s newest state.
Over much of South Sudan’s half-century struggle for independence, Israel almost single-handedly armed and supported the black African rebels against what was widely recognized as genocide and enslavement perpetrated by the Arabic rulers based in northern Sudan. In recognition of Israel’s role in its liberation, the leader of South Sudan made Israel his first foreign stop following independence and promised to establish his country’s embassy in Israel’s capital of Jerusalem, the only country in the world to do so.
Israel’s military help will continue to be needed in East Africa. The oil-rich South Sudan may well find itself at war again with the north and East African countries may find themselves subject to terrorist attack, particularly since South Sudan plans to pipe its oil eastward to ports in Kenya and Ethiopia instead of north through Sudan, which relies on South Sudan’s oil.
Focus on Israel and it appears to be a tiny isolated country surrounded by a sea of hostile Arab nations. Zoom out, though, and it is the Arab nations that are revealed to be isolated, increasingly surrounded by age-old adversaries, most of which have growing ties to Israel. With Israel’s hydrocarbon assets continuing to grow, and with Israel’s military and intelligence assets remaining dominant in the region, Israel’s periphery diplomacy has emerged as one of the country’s remarkable achievements.
This article first appeared in the Financial Post.