TEL AVIV, Israel, Oct. 12 (UPI) -- The brewing confrontation between Israel and Turkey, both U.S. allies, in the eastern Mediterranean gas dispute could eventually involve the Americans to prevent the Middle East erupting into open conflict again.
The dispute also pits Turkey, and the enclave in northern Cyprus it seized in a 1974 invasion, with the Greek Cypriots who control the southern two-thirds of the island.
The region's gas deposits are "so vast that the economic map of the region is already being redrawn, even as tensions flare," the Financial Times observed last week.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is reported to have pressed Ankara to back off from threats to send warships to the disputed waters around Cyprus.
The Wall Street Journal quoted former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Morton Abramowitz as saying Washington needed to warn the Turks that "if conflict erupts between Turkey and Israel, 'We'll choose Israel.'"
Turkey, once a firm ally of Israel and now a bitter adversary, sent two warships plus air force fighters to escort a Turkish seismic ship into Cypriot waters to conduct exploratory drilling in September.
Despite Turkish threats, the Greek Cypriots are drilling for natural gas in the southernmost of their 12 exploration blocks, which abuts Israel's giant Leviathan gas field discovered in June 2010.
Israel and the Greek Cypriots are discussing plans to combine gas production for export through undersea pipelines to Europe via Greece, Turkey's ancient rival.
They're also talking about building a liquefied natural gas plant on the island for both countries' offshore fields.
The gas dispute has rekindled the Greco-Turkish rivalry, while at the same time added a new economic dimension to the 63-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict.
Lebanon, technically still at war with Israel, claims that Leviathan, containing some 16 trillion cubic feet of gas and 4.2 billion barrels of oil, lies partly in its waters.
Turkey, seeking to become the region's paramount power, has threatened to send its navy to protect the rights of its allies in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in Cypriot waters.
The TRNC was established after the 1974 invasion and is recognized only by Ankara, whereas the Greek Cypriot government in Nicosia has international recognition.
The U.S. Geological Survey says the Levant Basin covering the territorial waters of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the Gaza Strip and war-divided Cyprus contain 122 tcf of gas.
"So great are the suspected riches that tensions are rising across the region, echoing the scramble for energy resources in the South China Sea," between China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, the Financial Times noted.
"With such high stakes -- and equally high tensions -- the eastern Mediterranean has unmistakable become a more volatile part of the world."
The United States has watched these developments with deep unease, in part because Israel and Turkey are traditional U.S. allies.
The mounting tension between the two was triggered in May 2010 when the Israeli navy intercepted a Turkish-led international convoy carrying aid to the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip and killed nine Turks in international waters.
U.S. diplomacy failed to reconcile the two states and the process fell apart when Israel's hawkish prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, refused Ankara's demands for a formal Israeli government apology.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared he would send warships to escort any future aid flotillas. One was canceled and no others have been announced, suggesting to some that Erdogan was bluffing.
But, Israel's Globes business daily observed Sunday, "there are increasing fears that the Turkish leader, now among the most popular in the Muslim world, could have staked a position that will be hard to back away from."
Turkish analysts, the newspaper said, "note than Washington would be likely be dragged into any conflict."
U.S. and European strategists would like the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama to lay down the law in the Mediterranean using the U.S. Navy's 6th Fleet and engage in "more aggressive diplomacy."
So far, that hasn't happened. Such action would surely antagonize Turkey, which the Americans need right now to influence neighboring Iran and to help counter political turmoil in the Arab world.
But the bottom line may be that it's the Houston company Nobel Energy Inc. that's in the firing line doing the drilling off Israel and Cyprus.