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With Natural Gas Fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, Israel Now Has a New Front: the Sea

As new fields come online, Israel is beefing up its naval assets to fend off threats from Turkey, Lebanon, and Russia

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An Israeli Navy vessel passes by the Tamar natural-gas production platform during a squadron exercise on May 27, 2013, off the coast of Israel in the Mediterranean Sea. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
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Israel is beginning to realize the benefits of the recent discovery of 36 trillion cubic feet of gas off its coast in the eastern Mediterranean, mainly in the Tamar and Leviathan gas fields, located near Haifa. But the discovery has also presented Israel with one of its greatest military challenges yet: protecting its new offshore gas infrastructure in the eastern Mediterranean, which is vital to its energy, and therefore to its economic, security. Competing claims to the lucrative natural gas fields—claims made by Israel’s erstwhile ally Turkey as well as its cold-peace neighbor Lebanon—have precipitated a build-up of naval forces in the Levant basin from a number of state actors wanting to get in on the action, including Russia, just as the drawdown of American naval assets in the area has created a regional power vacuum. Meanwhile the wells, and the increased Israeli naval presence protecting them, offer new targets at sea to Israel’s longstanding non-state enemies Hezbollah and Hamas.

This cutthroat environment has forced Israel, traditionally not a maritime nation, to focus an increasing number of resources on its navy. The country is now in the process of creating the most technologically advanced fleet in the eastern Mediterranean. Recently Israel has sought to increase the capabilities of its fast patrol vessels, the Shaldag and Super Davora Mark III, of which another three larger variants are already on order from Israel Aerospace Industries. In addition to these smaller purchases, Israel has been upgrading its Sa’ar 4.5 missile boats and Sa’ar 5 corvettes with new radars, electronic warfare systems, and anti-aircraft and anti-missile missiles. These surface assets are being joined by two new Dolphin-class submarines, the most advanced in the Mediterranean, with a third on order. Israel Shipyards has designed a new Sa’ar S-72, an 800 ton vessel intended to replace the Sa’ar 4.5 while providing many of the capabilities of the Sa’ar 5. Finally, Israel appears to be closing in on a deal for two F124 Sachsen-class frigates, the largest and most capable ships in the German navy.

Israel’s goal is not just to be energy-independent, but to become a major energy exporter. Its ultimate objective is to transport the bulk of its gas to Europe, but it aims to sell locally to the Palestinians, and to Jordan—a diversification strategy inspired, in part, by its long experience with disruptions to gas pipelines in the Sinai. Israel is also offering its technological expertise and has partnered with Cyprus and Greece to assist the development of Cyprus’ Aphrodite gas field.

The recent good fortune of Israel, and to a lesser extent of Cyprus and Greece, has caused much chagrin in neighboring capitals, particularly in Ankara. As the neo-Ottoman dreams of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan collapse from both internal strife and the repudiation of his Islamist ideology abroad, he has increasingly moved toward relying on hard power to shore up his domestic base and maintain regional influence. As allies like Egypt disappear, Turkey has embarked on one multibillion dollar defense program after another. Turkey refurbished its Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates, launched two Ada-class corvettes, and is building another three, commissioned six Kilic II-class missile boats, and is working on multiple missile systems. Its strongest projection of naval strength came in a December 2013 decision to purchase an enormous 27,500 ton landing dock vessel capable of holding multiple tanks, helicopters, and more than a thousand troops—perhaps an ominous indication of its intentions in the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey has, meanwhile, gone to great lengths to quench its thirst for energy, perhaps best epitomized by its sanction-busting purchases of Iranian gas—purchases made in gold. An energy importer with a huge account-deficit related to mismanagement in the natural-gas sector, Turkey was previously slated to be a recipient of Israel’s new gas finds and the host of the pipeline essential to European exports. However, Turkey’s foundering relationship with Israel and its longstanding territorial dispute with Cyprus over what Turkey, and only Turkey, calls the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus—land Turkey acquired by force from Cyprus in 1974—has turned the potential for collaboration and mutual advantage into a source of antagonism and possible armed conflict.

Turkey believes it has the right to collect export revenue from gas found off the Cypriot coast. To this end, it has engaged in aggressive military maneuvers to ward off international gas and oil investors wanting to explore Aphrodite. These acts, in combination with bellicose threats from Erdogan and the array of armament programs, have sent a clear message to the Israeli-Greek-Cypriot axis that war may be coming. This message has not gone unnoticed. Turkey’s threats and actions have pushed Israel, Cyprus, and Greece closer together, the end result being Israeli-Greek military cooperation, which has already manifested in multiple joint air and sea exercises in the past three years under the names Noble Dina and Blue Flag.

Meanwhile, Israel is engaged in a dispute with Lebanon over Jerusalem’s claim to an off-shore Exclusive Economic Zone, known as an EEZ, covering the Tamar and Leviathan fields. With U.S. mediation efforts at a standstill and Lebanon’s economy sinking into the abyss, Lebanon is poised to begin offering exploration licenses to firms that would be encroaching on what Israel claims is its territory. These two states are still in a de jure state of war, and a recent border clash left one Israeli soldier dead. If these licenses are granted and there is a breach of Israel’s EEZ, Israel could very well deem it a casus belli worthy of a military response. While the assets of the Lebanese Armed Forces are vastly inferior to those of the Israel Defense Forces, the December 2013 pledge by Saudi Arabia to provide $3 billion to upgrade the LAF’s capabilities—widely seen as an effort by the Saudis to counter the power of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia—could tip this balance of power, rendering the possibility of a large-scale confrontation more likely in the future.

With or without the cooperation or consent of the LAF, Hezbollah could seek to disrupt Israel’s off-shore venture by targeting rigs and Israeli naval patrols. Hezbollah is already in possession of Chinese C-802 anti-ship missiles and is believed to have been given Russian Yakhont missiles by Syria. These massive missiles, powered by ramjet engines and capable of reaching supersonic speeds and hitting targets up to 180 miles from shore, are a potential risk to all Israeli and Cypriot assets. Hezbollah has engaged Israel’s navy in the past with success: During the Second Lebanon War in July 2006, Hezbollah fired a missile at the INS Hanit corvette, killing four sailors and causing extensive damage. Another missile sank a nearby cargo freighter. Hezbollah’s waning support in Lebanon due to blowback from its role in Syria could push the organization to reclaim its populist role as the only resistance force capable of defending Lebanon from Israeli aggression. Fighting for Lebanese rights in the eastern Mediterranean could provide the pretext needed for Hezbollah to reestablish its credibility and raison d’être in the eyes of the Lebanese masses.


With a growing amount of increasingly sophisticated and lethal weaponry proliferating throughout the eastern Mediterranean, a conflagration, triggered intentionally or by a tragic miscalculation, seems almost inevitable. With Hezbollah bogged down indefinitely in Syria and with a second front emerging inside its southern Lebanese stronghold, Turkey gives the greatest cause for concern. On more than one occasion Erdogan has sought conflict with his neighbors. In 2010, he allowed the Mavi Marmara to sail from Istanbul, prompting a raid at sea by Israeli commandos that resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish civilians. More recently, Erdogan has welcomed Sunni jihadists trying to oust Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad, while also provoking Assad forces into downing a Turkish observation plane in 2012, a deeply embarrassing moment for Turkey.

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With Natural Gas Fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, Israel Now Has a New Front: the Sea

As new fields come online, Israel is beefing up its naval assets to fend off threats from Turkey, Lebanon, and Russia