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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.

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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.

After each incident Erdogan’s rhetoric markedly increased, although neither event was ever followed by concrete actions of the Turkish armed forces. However, as he finds himself challenged repeatedly at home and isolated abroad, and as his nation’s energy needs mount, the danger of a propaganda stunt turning into an actual conflict increase, as does resorting to the age-old tactic of starting a war in order to consolidate power and externalize the source of national turmoil. This, combined with the degradation of the Turkish officer corps and the short-term service of most naval personnel, only increases the potential of a shooting war in the Levant basin.

Perhaps the biggest question facing the eastern Mediterranean is the role an emboldened Russia will play, especially considering the drawdown of the United States’ Sixth Fleet—traditionally the dominant naval presence in the area. Russia recently acquired exploration and development rights to a substantial portion of Syria’s off-shore waters and has engaged both Cyprus and Israel to help develop and monetize their own gas finds. Staying true to its Machiavellian foreign policy, Russia continues to sell energy to Turkey notwithstanding their antithetical positions on Syria’s future and Turkey’s unremitting intimidation of Cyprus and Israel.

With a financial stake in the energy future of virtually every relevant regional actor, Russia has regained its Soviet-era foothold in the eastern Mediterranean. Not surprisingly, Russia’s role has taken on a military dimension—Cyprus just granted Russia’s navy full access to Cyprus’ main port. Moreover, Russia has so far managed to retain its Tartus naval base on the coast of a war-torn Syria and has sent warships to oversee Syria’s destruction of its chemical arsenal. Russia’s newfound military footprint in the eastern Mediterranean is underscored by the multiple naval exercises it has recently conducted, the latest of which involved more than 20 warships and submarines war-gaming against terrorism scenarios and disaster management response.

Russia’s vast economic interests in the region suggest its foreign policy focus in the eastern Mediterranean will somewhat mirror that of the United States—stabilization and the avoidance of conflict. Such a benign role, however, is not guaranteed. Traditional alliances still drive much of Russia’s actions in the region, as evidenced by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unwavering support for Syria’s Assad. Nevertheless, with its perceived ability to influence Assad and its fleet’s persistent presence in the region, Russia could find itself in the unenviable position of reining in Hezbollah and serving as a buffer between Turkey and the Israeli-Greek-Cypriot axis. It is not inconceivable that Putin could pull off a magic trick similar to the one he pulled with the United States regarding Syria’s chemical-weapons program. If Putin could negotiate a deal between the various factions, an option still very much on the table, it would substantially diminish, if not preclude outright, the possibility of a war over resources in the Levant basin.

Israel cannot rely on such optimistic thinking, nor on the good will of Russia should a military escalation occur. The real hope within Israeli defense circles is that Israel’s new fleet, combined with its continuous improvement of land and air assets, and the increasing cooperation with Greece, will give pause to any regional actor that would consider turning the Mediterranean Sea into the next great field of battle in the ever-widening Middle East war.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Israel Aerospace Industries by its former name, Israel Aircraft Industries.

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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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