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Slow progress in Israel-Turkey talks threatens gas pipeline plan

Oct. 2, 2013 at 12:56 PM   |   Comments

TEL AVIV, Israel, Oct. 2 (UPI) -- The pace of the supposed rapprochement between one-time strategic allies Israel and Turkey is almost glacial, casting doubts on prospects the Jewish state may build a $2 billion gas pipeline under the eastern Mediterranean to feed the European market.

That could complicate efforts by Israel, transformed since 2009 from resource-poor into a major regional energy power, to start exporting gas from its offshore fields.

It could also dash the long-held ambitions of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to turn his equally energy-poor nation into a regional energy hub and change the dynamics of east-west energy geopolitics.

Until recently, Muslim Turkey, ruled by Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, which came to power in 2002, was one of Israel's staunchest allies with deep military and intelligence ties.

But in May 2010 that alliance fell apart when Israeli commandos intercepted a Turkish flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip in international waters, killing nine Turks.

Truth to tell the alliance had been fraying for some time as Erdogan and his Islamic party grew impatient with Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory.

But the hostility between Erdogan and Israel's hawkish Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ensured the alliance would rupture even though commercial links remained discreetly intact.

U.S. President Barack Obama, seeking a reconciliation between two key regional allies, personally tried to kick start the process during a visit to Israel in March.

Netanyahu actually apologized for the 2010 killings -- something he previously had refused to do.

But Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu insisted Thursday Netanyahu had not yet met Erdogan's other conditions: compensation for the families of the slain Turks and ending Israeli "restrictions against Palestine," primarily the blockade of Gaza, which is ruled by the Turkish-supported Hamas movement.

Even so, an outburst against Israel by Erdogan Aug. 22, in which he angrily linked Israel to the Egyptian army's July 3 overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, his closest regional ally, had pretty much stalled everything.

Israeli officials dismissed Erdogan's charge as nonsense, but there's no getting around the fact Netanyahu feels infinitely more comfortable with Egypt's army, dependent on U.S. military aid, in charge in Cairo than the Muslim Brotherhood.

Much of Erdogan's anger these days seems to stem from his growing domestic problems, including Turkey's growing international isolation -- a condition the Israelis know well -- because of his intransigent policies aimed at restoring Turkey's Ottoman-era supremacy in the region.

Erdogan has grappled with growing protests at home throughout the summer and his heavy-handed response, including widespread arrests and taking over most of the media, has not gone down well as municipal elections loom in March 2014, with a presidential poll in August.

All this has cast a pall over negotiations between Israel's Delek Group, the main partner of Houston-based Noble Energy which was behind Israel's gas strikes, and Turkey's Zorlu Holding on the proposed undersea pipeline.

While links between Israeli and Turkish businessmen are cordial enough, a project of that magnitude and political significance demands inter-governmental cooperation.

Proponents of the pipeline say if it's ever built it could reshape the energy map of the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean even as the region is torn by wars, insurgencies, terrorism and political turmoil.

And no pipeline means Turkey's hopes of parlaying its $800 million economy, the biggest in the region, into a vital energy hub will dwindle, along with Erdogan's efforts to break free of dependence on Russia and Iran for gas to fuel electricity generation.

Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz wrapped it up succinctly: "The project's commercial feasibility will only be possible after the political feasibility is established."

The Netanyahu-Erdogan quarrel could also impede other export options for Israel, particularly building a $10 billion liquefied natural gas plant on nearby Cyprus, which also sits on significant reserves of gas, to jointly export by tanker to energy-hungry Europe and elsewhere.

That's hung up on Turkey, which has occupied the northern third of Cyprus since 1974, reaching a political settlement with the Greek Cypriots, who have the gas.

"Israel's quietly challenging Turkey and Cyprus to make a choice: Move together to develop Israel's share of the East Mediterranean's gas riches, or stay on the sidelines and perpetuate their decades-old stalemate over Cyprus," analyst Hugh Pope observed in Istanbul.

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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