A Win for Turkey and Russia at Israel’s Expense
The Biden administration recently withdrew its support for the Eastern Mediterranean (EastMed) pipeline designed to transfer natural gas from Israel to Europe. The decision deals a blow to Israel’s hopes of becoming a strategically important supplier of natural gas to Europe.
The 6-billion-euro ($6.8 billion) project envisaged construction of a 1,900-kilometer (1,180-mile) undersea pipeline that would carry up to 20 billion cubic meters of gas annually from Israeli and Cypriot waters to Crete and the Greek mainland. From there, gas would go to Italy and southeastern Europe.
The EastMed pipeline has been in the planning stages for more than a decade. The Israeli-Greek-Cypriot project—joined by Bulgaria, Hungary, North Macedonia, Romania, and Serbia—has long been seen as a way to diversify natural gas supplies to Europe and reduce overdependence on supplies from Russia.
In January 2020, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus—with strong support from the Trump administration—signed the EastMed intergovernmental agreement, which aimed at reaching a final investment decision by 2022 and completing the pipeline by 2025. The EastMed project could eventually have supplied up to 10 percent of Europe’s natural gas.
The Biden administration called EastMed antithetical to its “climate goals” and wants “clean energy” instead. It also questioned the pipeline’s economic and commercial viability.
Biden’s decision represents a major geopolitical victory for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who opposes the underwater pipeline because it would bypass Turkey. The Turkish government insists Israeli gas can only be sold to Europe through Turkey. In 2016, Turkey and Israel tried to sign a deal to deliver gas via Turkey, but Ankara’s demand that Israel lift its blockade on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip made it impossible.
Since then, Turkey has challenged the EastMed project by attempting to expand its claims over gas-rich areas of the Mediterranean Sea. The Turkish navy repeatedly harasses ships exploring for gas in Greek and Cypriot waters, which Turkey now claims it owns. The Biden administration claims EastMed is a “primary source of tension” that is “destabilizing” the region.
Some analysts have warned that Biden’s decision—reportedly coordinated with Turkey but not with Israel, Greece, or Cyprus—rewards Turkish aggression and undercuts three of America’s strongest allies in the region. Indeed, Erdoğan hailed Biden’s U-turn as a victory.
Richard Goldberg, a member of the U.S. National Security Council during the Trump administration, called Biden’s decision a strategic mistake that “smells of a political decision, not an economic one.”
Endy Zemenides, executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council, said the assertion that EastMed is not commercially viable is not for the White House to say. “It’s not their decision,” he said. “If somebody steps up and pays for it, that makes it commercially viable. Nobody was asking the U.S. State Department or the USA.” Zemenides added that the United States should stop trying to appease Turkey. “Turkey is not looking to participate in Eastern Mediterranean initiatives; it wants to dominate them. Ankara’s goal is not one of cooperation but of regional primacy if not hegemony.”
In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. Reps. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) and Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY) said Biden’s reversal smacks of hypocrisy because he supports Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that would double Russian supplies of natural gas to Europe. “We hope you and President Biden recognize the significant national security implications the United States and our European allies are facing because of European reliance on Russian gas,” they wrote. “The EastMed pipeline must be a priority. . . . We strongly urge you to reconsider your opposition . . . and support energy independence for our allies in the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe.”
Veteran energy analyst Ariel Cohen agreed. “This is a disastrous decision that imperils European security and opens the door for further Russian energy hegemony in European gas markets,” he said. “It should be reversed.”