TEL AVIV, Israel, Sept. 14 (UPI) -- Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's unprecedented threat to send the Turkish navy into the eastern Mediterranean to challenge Israel is primarily aimed at torpedoing efforts by the Jewish state and Greek Cypriots to develop rich offshore natural gas fields.
Turkey, until recently a staunch ally of Israel, is determined to become the champion of the Arabs and hitting at Israel's newfound energy resources would have a profound impact.
Greece is Turkey's historical rival and Ankara doesn't want to see the Greek Cypriots, who rule the southern sector of the war-divided island, joining with Israel to exploit the natural gas fields while cutting out the Turkish Cypriots.
Erdogan has been at odds with Israel for the last three years over its occupation of Palestinian land.
But the rift widened alarmingly May 31, 2010, when Israeli forces killed nine Turks aboard a flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian aid to the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip.
When Israel refused to formally apologize for the incident, Erdogan booted out the Israeli ambassador and senior diplomats Sept. 2.
He also pledged to reinforce Turkish naval patrols around the gas fields between Israel and Cyprus.
That threatens Israel's drive to start producing gas from two key fields -- Leviathan and Tamar -- which between them contain reserves estimated at 25 trillion cubic feet of gas.
That would transform the economy of Israel, which has had to import nearly all its energy requirements, and even allow it to export gas.
In 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that the continental shelf running from Syria southward to Egypt contains an estimated 122 trillion cubic feet of gas plus around 4.2 billion barrels of oil.
So there are rich pickings to be had but they lie in a region torn by political and religious disputes, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and the age-old feud between Greece and Turkey.
At present, the Israeli objective is to work with Cyprus, which expects to start exploration of its own waters soon, to build an underwater pipeline from Israel to the island.
From there the combined output would be exported to energy-hungry Europe.
Greece and the Greek enclave in Cyprus are members of the European Union, a Christian bloc that has shown little enthusiasm for efforts by Muslim Turkey to join the 24-nation bloc.
Ankara claims the Greek Cypriots cannot develop offshore gas fields without the participation of the Turkish sector in the north of the island, carved out when Turkey invaded in 1974.
The Greek Cypriot government in Nicosia is internationally recognized. Only Ankara recognizes the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Reports from Ankara say that Erdogan will make an initial deployment of three frigates into the disputed waters.
That risks a confrontation with the Israeli navy, which in recent months has extended its patrols in the eastern Mediterranean to enforce an economic blockade on the Gaza Strip, ruled by the militant Palestinian group Hamas.
These patrols are largely intended to interdict arms shipments from Iran bound for Hamas and Hezbollah, Tehran's powerful proxy in Lebanon.
Hezbollah has also threatened to attack Israel's gas fields and its attendant infrastructure because the Beirut government complains gas fields claimed by Israel lie in Lebanese waters.
Israeli National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau declared Sunday, "Israel can support and secure the rigs that we're going to have in the Mediterranean."
Equally, an expanded Turkish naval presence could menace offshore drilling and pipeline construction, as well as scare off potential investors.
Turkey's EU minister, Egemen Bagis, declared last week: "It is for this that countries have warships. It's for this we …train our navy."
Turkey, a member of NATO, has a much larger navy than Israel -- 14 submarines, 16 frigates and six corvettes against three submarines, three corvettes and 10 missile-armed patrol craft.
Military analysts say the Turks would be wary of taking on the Israelis because of their powerful air force, which can cover the eastern Mediterranean.
The U.S. administration is also likely to be pressing Turkey to contain its military operations, and, for the time being at least, Ankara is likely to pay heed.
The Israelis, who are mired in crisis with neighboring Egypt and facing off with Iran and Hezbollah, seek to prevent the confrontation with Turkey deteriorating. But Erdogan appears to be ready to get tougher.