BAKU – Rules only apply to those who cannot afford different rules. After years of diplomatic apprehensions, Turkey and Israel are working on ways to restore their diplomatic ties. At the heart of the negotiations is a maritime plan that would redistribute the sea in between. The proposal would directly connect the Israeli exclusive economic zone with the Turkish sector, while also barricading Cyprus from the Mediterranean. Both the Turks and the Israelis would gain significant territories that are presumed to be rich in hydrocarbons. In addition, the two would work together on redirecting previously proposed pipelines towards more cost effective routes. The new maritime deal holds strategic and economic promise for both sides. The costs, however, are high. The deal would violate the existing international consensus, and in the process reshape the Eastern Mediterranean.
Designations and interpretations
Better days are ahead for Turkey and Israel. In recent months, there have been sincere efforts towards reconciliation. The discussions cover a variety of topics, ranging from the status of the Palestinian organisations, to the sale of military technologies, to the role of Turkish soft power. One of the focal points is the maritime zone of the Eastern Mediterranean, and the resources it holds for both nations. Here, Turkey has several claims over areas that do not fall under its jurisdiction; while Israel seeks to secure its coastline where much of its industrial and economic power is situated.
Turkey, in particular, has been steadfast in its claims. In conjunction with its maritime policy “Blue Homeland”, Ankara drafted several delimitation agreements for exploration rights. In November 2019, Turkey signed a maritime boundary treaty with the internationally recognised government of Libya, which allowed Turkish and Libyan sway over Mediterranean resources. Nine months later, Greece and Egypt signed a similar treaty to demarcate an exclusive economic zone for their oil and gas drilling rights; while the United Arab Emirates signed a defence pact with Greece.
The tit-for-tat in the Eastern Mediterranean comes with considerable historical baggage, but at its core, the discord is about legal designations and interpretations. The hydrocarbon resources that lie underneath the seabed are deemed to be within Greece and Cyprus’ exclusive economic zones. According to the Law of the Sea Convention, coastal states can claim up to 370 kilometres as their exclusive economic zone to exploit the existing resources. In the Mediterranean, that principle is deeply flawed. The geographic body is semiclosed, and the respective exclusive economic zones bump into each other, creating all sorts of disagreements. Still more complicated, Turkey is not a signatory to the Law of the Sea, and interprets the provisions differently. For one, Turkey argues that islands do not have the right to an exclusive economic zone – practically not in an enclosed sea of body. Instead, the islands in the Mediterranean are part of the continental shelf, and thus disqualified to claim their own exclusive economic zones. The reason for this interpretation is that there are hundreds of Greek islands in the Aegean, some within eyesight of the Turkish coast. If each of these islands has exclusive economic zones, Turkish maritime interests would be effectively confined to a very narrow strip.
To secure its interests, Turkey has held reconciliation talks with Israel. And, since May 2020, the discussions have included the maritime sphere. To give some context, Israeli lawmakers believe that they were cheated of thousands of square kilometres of maritime area when a provisional median line was drawn between Israel and Cyprus. That line was supposed to be temporary but then quickly became the de-facto boundary. Cypriot lawmakers started licensing the parcels to multinational energy firms, inviting as many different conglomerates as possible. It was an attempt to manufacture international consensus, and it worked. French and Italian firms flocked to the scene, which turned Cyprus’ maritime claims into an economic priority for France and Italy.
Meanwhile, Israel lost about 4,600 square kilometres of maritime area. Usually, this wouldn’t be such a big deal, but the Cypriot maritime area happens to be a resource-rich parcel belonging to the Aphrodite gas field. The dispute is worth billions. So, in 2010, Cyprus signed a maritime delimitation agreement with Israel, which appeased the Israeli claim. The 2010 agreement created a shared exclusive economic zone for hydrocarbon exploration, but Israel was still only allowed to operate in one parcel, and even in that single parcel Israel received the junior share of hydrocarbons. For the Israelis, this was clearly a bad deal. Jerusalem has been trying to renegotiate the terms for a binding treaty, but that has proven difficult due to French and Italian support for the Cypriot claim. Since then, Cyprus and Israel have been at a political deadlock.
Fast-forward to 2020, Israeli and Turkish lawmakers have come to see things eye to eye, and they’ve been working on a new maritime deal accordingly. The details surfaced only recently, but the essence of the deal is divided into two parts.
The first component would see a diagonal line delimitate Turkey and Israel’s maritime areas while cutting through Cypriot waters. The new diagonal border would register as a shared exclusive economic, connecting the coasts of Israel and Turkey. The draft would see Israel gain up to 16,000 square kilometres of maritime space, including control over the entirety of the Aphrodite gas field. At the same time, Turkey would gain around 10,000 square kilometres of maritime area, including some parcels currently being explored for hydrocarbons. This arrangement would be akin to the Turkish-Libyan deal of 2019.
The second component, meanwhile, focuses on pipelines. In its plans to export natural gas to Europe, Israel has teamed-up with Greece and Cyprus to develop the EastMed pipeline. This proposed pipeline would have a length of roughly 1,900 kilometres while reaching depths of 3 kilometres. Its capacity would measure about 10 billion cubic meters per year, and it would transfer natural gas starting from Israel, to Cyprus, to Crete, to the mainland of Greece, and then to the shores of Italy. The cost of the project is expected to reach 7.4 billion USD, but even more troubling is that Israel’s gas demand is predicted to quadruple by 2040. So, the EastMed pipeline is not only expensive but may not even deliver enough natural gas in the long-run. Considering the price tag and the insufficiency of resources, Italy’s Foreign Ministry has cast doubts about the feasibility of the EastMed pipeline. As a counter-proposal, under the new Israeli-Turkish deal, Israel would export its natural gas by connecting with the existing pipeline network across Turkey. The Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline, for example, connects to the Trans Adriatic Pipeline in Greece and Albania, while also bringing in natural from the South Caucasus Pipeline. The exact route to connect Israel to the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline is unknown. But, given its capacity, the involved parties, and the fact that it already exists, the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline would almost certainly prove to be a more cost-effective alternative for medium and long-term energy cooperation.
The position of Cyprus
Taken together, the Turkish-Israeli maritime deal seeks to resolve both Ankara and Jerusalem’s standing disputes in one fell swoop through bilateral agreements. While doing so, the proposal would not only reconcile but upgrade the Turkish-Israeli relationship to new strategic heights. However, while the proposal on the pipelines makes sense, the boundaries of the exclusive economic zones would come at the expense of Cyprus; and herein lies the problem.
In spite of their differences, Israel and Cyprus remain close. Israeli officials have stated that Cyprus is an ally, and any bilateral agreement in the Mediterranean that harms Cyprus is unacceptable. As it is, the Turkish-Israel deal would disrupt the existing parameters.
Israel and Cyprus are part of maritime agreements that are in line with the Law of the Sea Convention. The United Nations and the European Union recognise the current maritime border between the two. If Israel entered into such an agreement with Turkey, it would have to annul the previous arrangements, and then handle the diplomatic fallout. Greece and Cyprus would almost certainly condemn the Turkish-Israel deal as a violation of their respective sovereignties. Backed by France, the European Union’s mechanisms would be employed to penalise both Turkey and Israel. At the same time, Israel’s newfound relationship with the United Arab Emirates would come under scrutiny, given Greece’s defence pact. Thus, considering the outcome, any proposal that comes at the expense of Cyprus is a non-starter for Israel. It is for that reason that Israeli officials rejected the deal out of hand.
That said, despite all the international agreements that Israel and Cyprus have signed, ownership of the Aphrodite field remains disputed. There is no binding agreement on it, which in turn is a violation of Israel’s rights in the principle of proportionality in maritime delimitation. Up until now, Cyprus has held the upper hand in the negotiations, but the Israelis could use the threat of a Turkish deal to extract more concessions from Cypriots. By and large, these types of political negotiations are often unfair. The talks rest on irreducible measures of coercion, and every friendship has some degree of self-interest. But, negotiate we must, because negotiation, in the classic sense, assumes that the parties are more anxious to agree than to disagree.
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