Saturday, October 18, 2014

Will natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean contribute to peace, or fuel conflict?

This past week I attended an event at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University on the potential impact of the discovery of new natural energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean. Entitled, "Energy, Peace and Conflict in the Eastern Subterranean," the panel included Sir Michael Leigh of the German marhsall Fund, Dr. Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and
Dr. Brenda Shaffer of the University of Haifa, and was moderated by Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou and Dr. Payam Mohseni of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. 

One of the points that emerged from the panelists comments was that while there has been speculation about the ways in which these sources of energy might bring opportunities for better relations between countries in the region, in the short term the opposite is actually more likely to happen. In fact, several of the speakers highlighted the potential for conflict over access to natural gas reserves, and not only between Israel and its neighbors, which has received some attention in the media, but in the waters surrounding Cypress, which Turkey apparently claims as part of its own exclusive economic zone, a position which does not sit particularly well with many Greek Cypriots.

This part of the world is no stranger to conflicts over territory or access to resources, and if history is any guide, I am inclined to agree with these experts that providing another potential point of conflict is not likely to help usher in a new era of peace and cooperation any time soon. In the long run, as Dr. Shaffer notes in a policy brief she authored in 2012, there is the potential that closer economic ties might help reinforce gains made in the political arena between Israel and its neighbors. But this seems a long way off, and even if economic cooperation could help bolster successful diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians, there is the Sisyphean task of achieving success in the peace process itself.

That being said, I do believe strongly that the establishment of a real and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians will require not just a cessation of hostilities, but an attempt at normalization of relations, including around issues of trade and economic development. In this sense, I agree with Dr. Shaffer's analysis that in the long-run, the discovery of these natural gas fields could contribute to the maintenance and stability of peace.

As for possible disputes between Israel and Lebanon (or Israel and Egypt, for that matter) or Turkey and Cypress about who has the right to explore and extract natural resources in the eastern Mediterranean. it's hard to imagine that either side in any of these situations, will budge. Perhaps the best we can hope for in the short term is that the extraction of natural gas in this area will proceed with minimal conflict between the countries involved - this in and of itself would be a significant achievement and perhaps set the stage for better relations between regional neighbors down the road.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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