Don’t Pass (on the) Gas: Israel’s Gas Discoveries are an American Strategic Asset Worth Protecting

by Gabriel Scheinmann
JINSA Visiting Fellow

by Gabriel Scheinmann
JINSA Visiting Fellow

Imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when the United States is heavily reliant on Middle Eastern energy resources. Now, imagine that those resources are controlled not by crumbling, sclerotic, state-sponsors of terror and Islamist regimes, but by stable, liberal, and democratic pro-American allies. Science fiction? It’s merely the future if Washington works to help secure recent Israeli gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean.

Over the last several years, Israel, and Cyprus have made major gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean. While Israel’s current proven gas reserves amount to more than 10 trillion cubic feet (tcf), Israel Natural Gas Authority Director-General Yehosua Stern recently stated that Israel’s potential gas discoveries could reach nearly 46 tcf. To put that in perspective, that would be double America’s 2010 gas consumption and twelve times its gas imports. In fact, the 2010 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that the Levant Basin Province might contain as much as 122 tcf of natural gas. Operated partly by Houston-based Noble Energy, drilling in the Tamar field and a sister Cypriot field began this past September, with production coming online in mid-2013. With the even larger Leviathan field expected to come online in 2017, the coming decade—absent strong U.S. action—could transform the eastern Mediterranean from a tranquil, bikini-clad bathwater into the more politically treacherous waters that characterize the Persian Gulf.

Threats to these discoveries have grown in parallel with continued Israeli development. A Hezbollah-linked analyst declared that “in case the enemy steals Lebanon’s oil, Hezbollah will have the right to strike its oil installations and facilities.” He denounced the “Zionists’ plot to find control over Lebanon’s sea wealth.” Syria and, more recently, Turkey have threatened Israeli drilling and Israeli-Cypriot energy cooperation. In September, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan threatened that “You will see that [Israel] will not be the owner of this right.” In another interview, he added that Israeli-Cypriot cooperation was “oil exploration madness” and vowed to send Turkish warships and exploration vessels to contest it. In addition to conventional threats by the Turkish surface or submarine fleet, Israel’s gas fields could also face unconventional threats, such as a Syrian or Hezbollah missile attack on a gas rig, a USS Cole-style booby-trapped boat attack, or even a rig takeover by a terrorist group.

As a result, Israel has begun to take the steps necessary to protect its sea-based energy assets. First, it has pledged to introduce “Protectors,” reconnaissance UAVs that will track suspicious movements surrounding the exploration and drilling rigs. Second, it is considering a $100 million expansion of its navy in order to have the naval force structure required to protect sea-based resources. The Israeli Navy, an arm of the IDF, is largely a coastal defense force—aside from its three, German-made Dolphin-class submarines—comprised mostly of missile corvettes and patrol boats.

During the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah severely damaged one of Israel’s three state-of-the-art Saar-class corvettes, scoring a direct hit with an anti-ship missile, one that could similarly be used against gas rigs. Four Israeli crewmen perished.

Israeli ships would be needed not only to defend the exploration and drilling rigs, but also the underwater pipelines that are being laid as well as transport ships. Cypriot Energy Service Director Solon Kassinis even floated the idea that Israel might help protect the Cypriot fields from attack, prompting a Turkish government minister to threaten that no project could be formed in the Eastern Mediterranean “without Turkish consent.” This comes after Vatan Daily, a Turkish newspaper, reported that two IAF jets and a helicopter circled above a Turkish gas exploration ship in late September, an incident denied by Jerusalem.

Washington’s interest in ensuring unfettered Israeli exploitation of its gas discoveries ought to be clear. First, revenue from gas sales would not be going to prop up problematic regimes, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Libya, but instead would fill the coffers of democratic allies such as Israel and Cyprus. Second, unlike energy supplies from the Persian Gulf, gas from the eastern Mediterranean would not have to traverse politically precarious maritime straits. Third, a race for resources amongst surly states with domestic difficulties (Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt) can only lead to instability.

The U.S. Navy, which frequently makes port calls in Haifa, should play a strong role in deterring challenges to Israeli gas development. It can also share with its Israeli counterpart its Persian Gulf-honed expertise in protecting shipping lanes, oil rigs, and pipelines. In mid-October, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro visited the Solitaire, the world’s largest pipe-laying ship, which is laying underwater pipelines to carry gas from the Tamar field to Israel. On deck, Shapiro expounded that the U.S. was “extraordinarily proud of the energy cooperation this represents between the United States and Israel…all in the service of stronger Israeli economy, stronger Israeli-American economic relations.” Israel’s gas finds can indeed be a strategic, economic, and political boon for Washington, as long as it does not pass on them.


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