Facing threats and opportunity, Israel forges Mediterranean alliance

Israelis who once had their backs to the water are looking to the eastern Mediterranean to find partner countries to exploit natural gas reserves and bolster Israeli security.

Baz Ratner/Reuters
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu climbs out after a visit inside the Rahav, the fifth submarine in the Israeli Navy's fleet, after it arrived in Haifa port January 12, 2016.

With Israel’s flag flapping over the country’s newest piece of military hardware, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu descended very carefully into the Dolphin-class submarine INS Rahav at its inaugural ceremony this month in Haifa.

There’s been little tentative, however, about Israel’s recent push westward into the Mediterranean Sea with a mix of added naval force and energy diplomacy.

Israelis had turned their backs to the water for decades, as neighboring armies routinely threatened to throw the Jewish state into the sea. But in the last five years, Israel has begun to see the Mediterranean as a strategic arena, rather than merely as an apocalyptic graveyard.

That arena hold threats and opportunities: rising instability in the region post Arab Spring; a shift in US priorities and an increased Russian presence; and the need to develop offshore natural gas reserves.

As a result, a navy that was once mainly a coast guard has been bulked up with new vessels to protect Israel's gas fields and defend the mainland from rocket attacks. And Israel is cultivating a military, economic, and diplomatic axis with Greece and Cyprus to cooperate on exploiting gas fields – while fending off rivals like Turkey and new regional players like Russia.

This relatively new axis will be on display Jan. 28 at a three-way summit in Cyprus, highlighting a dramatic improvement in relations between Greece and Israel. The agenda includes discussion of possible joint military exercises and the potential for economic cooperation with Egypt. It's the latest in a series of high-level consultations between the countries.

Even as Israel cultivates this new regional alliance, much larger powers are vying for influence at a time that the United States has reduced its footprint, observers say. Russia has intervened in the Syrian civil war, and China has sent ships amid a growing economic presence around the basin. The two held a joint exercise in the Mediterranean Sea last year.

“What we see in the last few years is a rise in significance of the Mediterranean.… These changes, especially the superpower competition, affect Israel whether it likes it or not,” says Ehud Eiran, a political scientist at Haifa University who co-authored an assessment of the strategic challenges in the region. “Israel has to find regional solutions.”

Mediterranean identity

Eran Lerman, a former international affairs deputy on Israel’s National Security Council, argues that Israel should think of itself as a Mediterranean rather than a Middle Eastern nation.

“For years, we allowed ourselves to be locked in by this term ‘the only democracy in the Middle East,’ ” says Lerman, a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University. “It’s time for us to think Mediterranean.”

With gas fields potentially vulnerable to attack dozens of miles from Israel’s shores, the navy has convinced the government to purchase four new corvette warships from Germany.

The Jewish state has for years also been modernizing and expanding its fleet of nuclear submarines, which are seen mainly as a deterrent to a long-range Iranian missile strike on Israel, but are also capable of directing firepower at militants around the Mediterranean basin.

“The weight of the navy in the balance of national security is constantly on the rise,” Prime Minister Netanyahu said at the submarine ceremony. “Israel’s naval force will continue to extend its reach, adding strength and strike power to reach remote and unseen quarters.”

Shift in US focus

The potential challenges from the sea are growing: the disintegration of Libya, which has enabled the Islamic State to get a toe-hold there; threats from Hezbollah in Lebanon, with which Israel has a dispute over the location of the maritime border; and muscle-flexing by Turkey, with whom Israel had a falling out five years ago.

Meanwhile, the US has downsized its presence in the region and shifted its focus toward the Pacific – creating a potential vacuum in the eastern Mediterranean.

“The Mediterranean was ignored by Israel because after the end of the Cold War, it was basically an American lake,” says Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. But “with America being less assertive and less involved; Israel has to come out with its own strategy.”

Offshore gas discoveries, meanwhile, have created an opportunity for a new matrix of cooperation. Israeli energy companies are helping to develop gas production off of Cyprus and are discussing exporting gas to energy-poor Egypt, which already has gas liquefaction plants. Another option is to bring the gas to shore in Greece and thence to European markets. 

All part of a pattern

The warming toward Israel is a significant shift for Greece, which has historically sided with the Palestinians in their conflict. It also gives Israel an alternative to Turkey after bilateral ties plunged into a freeze over Israel’s deadly assault on a Turkish ship in 2010 that challenged the blockade of Gaza.

“We have made big steps in making the relations of the countries better,” Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said during a first-ever visit to Jerusalem last November. “We’re on a route of strategic cooperation.”

Lerman believes the new matrix of alliances in the eastern Mediterranean is connected with Egypt’s decision to return its ambassador to Israel this month for the first time in more than three years.

And, if recent efforts at Turkish-Israeli reconciliation come to fruition, Lerman says there is room in the alliance for Ankara despite its rivalry with Greece and Egypt.

Wishful thinking?

“This is all part of a larger pattern,” he says. “There is a vital need for all of us who are like minded in the eastern Mediterranean to work together.”

*This story was updated to correct the description of the submarine INS Rahav.

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