As the old saw goes, the Jews wandered the desert for 40 years after their departure from Egypt, and managed to find the only place in the Middle East without oil. This self-deprecating joke worked until natural gas was discovered in large quantities offshore in Israel's exclusive economic zone. U.S. firm Noble Energy discovered two large natural gas deposits, known as the Tamar and the Leviathan fields, in 2009 and 2010. The reserves of the two fields are estimated at a combined 32 to 33 trillion cubic feet of natural gas - excluding sizeable oil deposits. Europe, including Turkey, consumed 19 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2013, the last year for which statistics are currently available.
The new finds offer not only the prospect of increased energy independence, but an export capacity that could represent a large and sustained boost to Israel's economy - yet nothing is simple. Israel has no experience to prepare it for the commercial, legal, practical, and environmental issues of such a windfall. Egypt accounted for 70 percent of Israel's natural gas needs until Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. Azerbaijan has been a major oil supplier through a pipeline that ended at the Turkish port of Ceyhan, from which oil was shipped to Israel.
The absence of regulatory structure, courts experienced in energy law, environmental safeguards, and other key elements of an official infrastructure capable of managing the windfall has left Israel unprepared to reap the full benefits from its abundant natural gas resources.
Although Noble has partnered with several Israeli companies, Israel's antitrust commissioner, David Gilo, delayed a decision last week on whether a monopoly over the gas fields exists. This same commissioner in December issued a decision that tore up an agreement to resolve outstanding antitrust questions. There's a chance that the March 17 national election will calm the uncertain Israeli energy business climate. This is necessary before any conglomerate - such as the one that brings together Noble Energy and Delek - can make decisions about investing the sums, estimated at $6 billion dollars, needed to extract the natural gas and bring it to market.
On the other hand, the national elections might solve nothing. The government could hand the antitrust issue to the courts, which could be expected to spend years wrangling over the outcome even if they had years of experience with the issue.
This would serve neither Israel's nor the United States' interests. The Palestinian Authority and Jordan have already signed letters of intent to purchase Israel's natural gas. The many jobs that would be created extracting and transporting natural gas might offer valuable opportunities to Palestinian workers, a stabilizing influence. Israel would be depriving itself of an important source of income at a moment when the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran demands major investments in Israeli submarine and missile technology to deter an Iranian nuclear attack.
More broadly, the Eastern Mediterranean is becoming increasingly unstable and violent. As demonstrated by its decision last week to proceed with the purchase of a Chinese surface-to-air missile system that is not compatible with NATO systems, Turkey continues its slow withdrawal from the Western alliance. Ankara has provided a naval presence to cover an energy research vessel operating in a portion of Cyprus's exclusive economic zone for which the Italian energy major, ENI, had purchased the rights to explore. A former Libyan prime minister said publicly last month that if assistance in the fight against ISIS is not forthcoming, he expects the terrorist organization to have a port on the Mediterranean within two months. This would allow the Islamic State to operate against such targets as cruise ships and merchant vessels transiting the Mediterranean, as well as the ability to smuggle ISIS members among the refugees who are fleeing Libya for Italy. Russian combatants are now operating in squadron-sized units in the Mediterranean as Vladimir Putin looks to seize a land route from Eastern Ukraine to Crimea.
At the same time, the U.S. Sixth Fleet, which operates in the Mediterranean, is much diminished. Once comprised of two aircraft carriers and an amphibious ready group, along with their escorting vessels and submarines, the Sixth Fleet today includes a command ship based in Italy and a small number of ballistic missile defense-equipped destroyers based in Spain.
As the United States continues its withdrawal from the Middle East, a stronger Israel serves Washington's interest in the region's security and stability, which now also hinges on the fate of Jordan and Egypt.
Israel's security will improve when the resources to modernize and strengthen its security forces are found - a more vigorous economy advances this goal. One essential element of such economic growth is the development of Israel's natural gas fields. Years of dithering over the extraction and export of this large resource would harm not only the Israeli economy, but would also hurt the interest shared by the United States and Israel in reversing the Eastern Mediterranean's descent into chaos.