Palestine Plays Regional Power Politics with Proposed Energy Deal
by James M. Dorsey | Jul 14, 2020
An initial version of this story was first published in Inside Arabia
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A Palestinian move to secure Palestine’s energy needs by tying them to high-stakes Turkish regional gambits constitutes an effort to reduce Palestinian dependence on Israel at a time when the Jewish state is looking at annexing parts of the occupied West Bank.
Faed Mustafa, Palestine’s ambassador in Ankara, Turkey
When Faed Mustafa, Palestine’s ambassador in Ankara, expressed interest in June in negotiating with Turkey an agreement on the delineation of maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean and cooperating on the exploitation of natural resources, he was repositioning Palestine in the larger struggle for regional dominance and the future of his state.
“We also have rights in the Mediterranean. Palestine has shares in oil and gas located in the eastern Mediterranean. We are ready to cooperate in these areas and sign a deal,” Mr. Mustafa said.
Mr. Mustafa did not spell it out, but Palestine would bring the Gaza Marine gas deposit, 36 kilometers off the Gazan coast, to the table. Discovered in 1999, the field, believed to have reserves of 31 billion cubic meters, remains unexplored as a result of multiple armed Israeli-Palestinian clashes, Israeli obstruction, and repeated changes in the consortium that would have ultimately exploited the field.
Palestine’s efforts to hook up with Turkey, at a time when relations with Israel have all but broken down, coincide with stepped up Israeli attempts to stymie Turkish inroads in Palestine paved by support for activists in Jerusalem and funding of historic and cultural facilities, in the wake of US President Donald J. Trump’s 2018 recognition of the city as Israel’s capital.
The Palestinian move also is a ploy to counter several steps taken by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to confront Turkey in Jerusalem and the eastern Mediterranean, facilitate a US plan to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that endorses annexation, and influence the succession of ailing 84-year old Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed last week in a speech celebrating the change of status of Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia – originally built as a Greek Orthodox church in 537 AD, then renovated into a mosque before becoming a museum by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in 1935 – to a mosque once again this month, that it would be “the harbinger of the liberation of the Al-Aqsa mosque.”
Al-Aqsa on the Harm-e-Sharif or Temple Mount in Jerusalem is Islam’s third holiest shrine. Backed by Israel, Saudi Arabia has sought to muscle its way into the Jordanian-controlled endowment that administers the Harm-e-Sharif.
A Palestine hook-up with Turkey could complicate Palestinian membership of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, dubbed the OPEC of Mediterranean gas, that also includes Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, and Jordan. France has applied for membership in the Cairo-based grouping while the United States is seeking observer status.
Founded in January and backed by the UAE, the Forum is virulently opposed to Turkish attempts to redraw the maritime boundaries in the region on the back of an agreement with Libya. Turkey refused to join the Forum.
While it is unlikely that the Gaza field will be operational any time soon, production would reduce Palestinian dependence on Israel.
Palestinian officials said early this year that they were discussing with Israel an extension of Israeli pipelines to send gas from Israeli gas fields to Palestine but that the talks, contrary to Israeli assertions, did not include development of the Gaza field.
In a twist of irony, Qatar, the UAE’s nemesis, would support a pipeline agreement by guaranteeing Palestinian payments for the gas. The Israeli pipeline along a 40-kilometer route adjacent to the Gaza border with three pumping stations would enable Gaza to operate a 400 MW power plant in a region that has, at the best of times, an energy supply of 15 hours a day.
The status of the talks remains unclear given an apparent delay of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s annexation plans amid international condemnation and US insistence that the Israeli leader postpone his move that had been scheduled for July 1.
Qatar reportedly threatened to cut off millions of dollars in aid to Gaza, provided in coordination with the Israeli government, if the Jewish state pressed ahead with annexation.
In June, Israel approved the transfer of US$50 million from Qatar to Gaza in a bid to dial back mounting tension with militants in the Strip that could spark renewed military confrontation as both Israel and Palestine struggle to get a grip on the coronavirus.
Some Palestinian analysts see the pipeline deal as an attempt by the Palestine Authority (PA) to enhance its influence in Gaza and undermine Hamas – its Islamist rival that controls the Strip – by a significant contribution to a surge in the power supply and a dramatic reduction of the cost of electricity. The risk, these analysts say, is that the pipeline would increase Palestinian dependence on Israel.
Economist Nasr Abdel Karim argued that Israel would only allow enhanced flows of gas, including from the Gaza field, if it leads to an even deeper split between the territory and the West Bank.
“Israel will not allow the Palestinians to benefit from the gas field for economic and political reasons. Israel might allow this in one case — if this plan is part of a bigger project to develop Gaza’s economy so that it splits from the PA and the West Bank,” Mr. Abdel Karim said.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture in Germany.