Energy Goals May Unify Eastern Med: Academic
As a former deputy adviser to the Israel National Security Council, Dr Eran Lerman has strong and clear views about the eastern Mediterranean as a strategic environment, particularly now with the increasing prospects for regional cooperation in energy. He sees the eastern Mediterranean as the successor to the 'colonial' term, Middle East. He is now professor at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Ramat Gan and gave an interview to NGE.
Dr Lerman, you refer to ‘The Union for the Mediterranean’ as an important symbol of cooperation. What does this mean?
I refer to closer cooperation within the Mediterranean framework, which can be built block by block, as demonstrated by the January 27 tripartite summit of Israel, Cyprus and Greece. A parallel process already links Egypt, Cyprus and Greece and indirectly, Jordan as well. Export-oriented gas policies can help cement links between the countries. This is not an effort to isolate Turkey, but rather to create a regional balance of power in which she can find her place once her leaders change course.
Significant cultural affinities have a role of their own to play in promoting a Mediterranean strategic identity. This would serve Israel's long-term interests – as well as those of Europe and of the US. It is time to let go of the old colonial concept, "Middle East", and re-learn to think in Mediterranean terms.
Why does the Mediterranean matter?
The Mediterranean world is in turmoil. Conflicts, above all in Syria, spill over into terror and mass migration, turning the region into a focal point of international disorder. Still, as often happens, this sense of crisis can and should generate an opportunity for re-tooling regional strategies. At stake are the prospects for a gradual geo-political convergence of interests and the emergence of a community of like-minded regional players, with a common thread of identity, to pose a credible alternative to today’s fragmented and dangerous landscape. While complex tensions persist across the region, key states in the eastern Mediterranean – as well as Italy – are coming together to co-operate against common threats propagated by the turmoil in the region, but also to promote and respond to the dramatic promise of joint energy projects
How do you see energy cooperation contributing to stability in the eastern Mediterranean?
The opportunities provided by the significant off-shore energy finds in recent years – including Leviathan and Eni’s Zohr – are dramatic insofar as they can positively bolster the ability of the forces of stability to hold and consolidate power against the disruptive forces in the region. Important as this may be, it cannot yet be translated into concrete policy agendas without other contributing factors, which might help cement the sense of “like-mindedness,” and re-affirm the profound historical and cultural affinities of key players. The journey has already begun. It will be interesting to see how Turkey’s priorities shape up against the background of unfriendly regional realities.
The potential for cooperation is particularly important in developing energy prospects, once it can be fully realized. It is a necessary condition for the proper exploitation of the eastern Mediterranean gas finds of recent years, and others which may yet follow, as well as for better utilization of modern clean technologies and the harnessing of renewable resources. All this lends emphasis to the options for growth and cooperation implicit in improving economic ties among Mediterranean nations.
How important are these energy prospects to the economies of region?
These opportunities are now more vital than ever for the future of the region. Economic trends in the Mediterranean basin as a whole have been largely negative over the last five years. Southern European economies have suffered either long-term stagnation or worse, a distinct decline accompanied by very high levels of unemployment. Greece, which found itself at the epicenter of the worst crisis in the history of the Eurozone, was engulfed by political as well as social turmoil, bringing her economy to the point of collapse. We also had the financial crisis in Cyprus, which threw a hitherto lively economy into a dangerous tailspin, which is fortunately on the way to recovery. Egypt’s economic predicament is another aspect of this problem.
All this lends emphasis to the options for growth and cooperation implicit in improving economic ties among Mediterranean nations. The exact trajectory of development and use of the gas fields has yet to be determined. It is clear, however, that exports would serve more than just economic interests: they can, and indeed must, be seen as a tool for cementing relations with key neighbours.
And what about Israel?
Even more dramatic in terms of the immediate impact of opportunities for trade and cooperation could be, and should be, joint ventures in the broad field of energy, and specifically, effective use of the large gas fields discovered in the eastern Mediterranean in recent years. These have been the subject of some heated controversy in Israel throughout 2015, leading to complex political manoeuvres under the pressure of populist opposition to gas exports. As it happens, this also obliged Israel’s government to take a clear stand as to the importance of regional cooperation. Once the gas regulatory framework deal clears its final hurdle, Israel will pursue proactively potential gas export deals to enable development of Leviathan, important to Israel’s security of energy supply.
What is the best way to secure the eastern Mediterranean’s prosperity and future?
This can be secured through political alliances of like-minded forces, willing to confront the firestorm of destructive forces threatening the future of the countries on the southern shore, which must first find the ways to put their capabilities and efforts together. Through the evolution of existing architectures of cooperation, and the emergence of new ones, it may be possible to create the conditions under which the vision of regional commonality and prosperity can be realized.
It is yet to be seen, as Turkey charts her course after the Russian crisis, and as work on a Cyprus settlement continues – with some expecting these talks to make real progress – whether political conditions will enable Turkey to be woven into this network.
Other Mediterranean players, with Italy in the lead, are taking note of these emerging alliances and may be looking at opportunities to expand this type of modular dialogues.
This is the future and the basis of my concept for the Union of the Mediterranean.
Thank you very much, Dr Lerman.
Dr Charles Ellinas @CharlesEllinas
Nonresident Senior Fellow – Eurasian Energy Futures Initiative, Atlantic Council