Why the War in Gaza Matters for the Eastern Mediterranean

Mustafa Çıraklı is an Associate Professor of International Relations and Director of the Near East Institute at Near East University. You may follow him on X @mcirakli. Nur Köprülü is a Professor of International Relations and the Head of the Department of Politics at Near East University. You may follow her on X @nurkoprulu.

The ongoing war in Gaza has created new realities and socio-political circumstances that have not only destabilized the regional order in the Middle East but also drawn attention to the shifting balance of power that upholds the world “order.” What has happened since October 7th, 2023—a culmination of cycles of wars and protracted conflicts that date back to the Arab-Israeli War (1948-1949)—has a number of regional and global repercussions that require our immediate attention. This broader context does not underestimate the centrality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but points to other potential flashpoints that carry the risk of further escalation and even destabilization of the world order. More specifically, the war in Gaza has at present destabilized the immediate neighborhood, having already spilled over to other parts of the region. Right from the outset, neighboring Jordan and Egypt were alarmed by a new influx of Palestinian migration across their borders. In this regard, an exodus from Rafah to Egypt or from the West Bank to Jordan would have drastic implications not only for these countries’ stability but may also deal a devastating blow to the two-state solution.

The Leviathan gas field as seen from an Israeli Navy ship

Further afield, the ongoing war has brought to a halt the so-called “gas diplomacy,” which has been driving regional energy integration efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean. It has also raised significant questions over the future viability of the diplomatic normalization process, which saw Israel improve its bilateral security, political, and economic relations in the Middle East.

Indeed, the political landscape almost six months ago was widely characterized by “an epoch of normalization” between Israel and several Arab states while bypassing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—or avoiding explicit references to the viability or practicability of the two-state solution. This also coincided with the Palestinian issue losing its prominence on the international agenda. This decline in interest by the United States and the Middle East Quartet (the U.S., the UN, the EU, and Russia) for the Question of Palestine over the last two decades, was also a side-effect of the 2011 Arab Spring. Notably, this led to the Palestinian issue losing its salience, especially in light of the NATO intervention in Libya and the subsequent outbreak of wars in Syria and Yemen.

But Arab leaders who remain supportive of normalization with Israel are increasingly concerned that the growing death toll and missteps in Israeli diplomacy could give rise to new demonstrations and domestic opposition. The immediate impact of the war on the energy sector has thus far been minimal. However, a prolonged or (worse yet) expanded conflict could mean the fragile calm in the Eastern Mediterranean—which followed on the heels of a Turkish-Greek rapprochement that was initiated shortly after two major earthquakes struck Türkiye in February 2023—may come under pressure with mounting regional tensions and further deterioration of Türkiye’s relations with Israel but also the United States.


How it All Began

The Question of Palestine has been an integral part of Arab politics and the de facto regional order of the Middle East since the end of World War II. The declaration of Israel by David Ben-Gurion in 1948 and the outbreak of the First Arab-Israeli War resulted in the annexation of the West Bank territories by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and Egypt taking control of the Gaza Strip. The war from 1948 to 1949 and its aftermath, which came to be known as the “nakba” (catastrophe) among Palestinians, brought new realities to the region. Over 700,000 Palestinians had to flee to the Kingdom of Jordan, where they were granted citizenship.

The results of the First Arab-Israeli War coincided with the newly expanding political landscape in the Middle East with Pan-Arabist, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist goals pursued under the leadership of the then President of Egypt, Gamel Abdul Nasser. The Question of Palestine became an indispensable element of Arab nationalist ideology promoted by Nasser, which also led to the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964. The Palestinian national liberation movement was subsequently considered an “Arab matter” and a central pillar of Arab nationalism. When Israel took control of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and also the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967, the subsequent Arab League Summit meeting further strengthened the nationalist tendencies, culminating in the declaration of “the three no’s”—in the form of no negotiation, no recognition, and no peace with Israel.

However, this would soon change, and the normative structure that paved the way for an Arab regional order suffered a setback with the peace that Egypt and Israel made in 1978. The Camp David Accords signed between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, which led to the normalization of relations between Egypt and Israel, explicitly marked a new era in the Arab Middle East regional order at the expense of Arab nationalism.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the bipolar international order also gave rise to peace talks for solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In this regard, the 1993 Oslo Accords were a key turning point, securing the most remarkable outcome that the parties have achieved.

The Arab popular protests that initially began in Tunisia and then spread across the region from 2011 onwards—called the “Arab Spring”—did not only pave the way for socio-economic and political demands to be voiced in the form of popular protests, but also led to yet another shift in the power balance in the region. The downfall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine bin Ali in Tunisia ushered in a new era in the region that set high expectations for further democratic transitions. The toppling of the Morsi-led government in Egypt, and the onset of the wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen had drastic repercussions on the redistribution of power in the region. Similarly, this significantly impacted the role played by extra-regional actors such as the U.S. and Russia. These have transformed and consolidated regional alignments. While one group of countries moved towards advocating Arab popular protests, others, particularly in the Gulf region, opted to take a stand against them.

Meanwhile, despite its policy of retrenchment, the United States also became politically involved in the region, with the “Deal of the Century” launched by President Donald Trump in 2017, which was opposed by the Palestinian Authority and treated as an initiative aimed at sidelining the Palestinians and nullifying the two-state solution. The Deal was then followed by a series of acts towards Israel’s normalization of relations with Arab countries, known as the Abraham Accords.

The Abraham Accords were inaugurated by the United Arab Emirates in 2020, and continued with Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. Israel’s normalization of ties with these Arab states exemplifies a critical moment in the region, unseen since the Kingdom of Jordan’s recognition of the Jewish State in 1994. The Abraham Accords were signed 26 years after Jordan’s normalization of relations with Israel.

In fact, American policy towards the region during the Trump presidency epitomized Washington’s view that normalization might happen without or prior to the implementation of a two-state solution. The declaration of the Deal of the Century, the relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018, and the subsequent push towards restoring Israel’s relations with the neighboring countries portray the foundation of the Middle East political landscape prior to the war in Gaza.

In this regard, the war in Gaza came about during a period of fragmentation of the post-2011 Arab regional order. While fragmentation itself dates back to the defeat of 1967 and the Camp David Accords of 1978, the trend that further exacerbated it within the Arab world became more pronounced following the 2011 Arab uprisings.


Repercussions for the Eastern Mediterranean

Before the war in Gaza, significant natural gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean promised new development opportunities. Chief among these were the discovery of Tamar in 2009—a 300 billion cubic meters (bcm) natural gas field—and Leviathan (450 bcm), then the largest in the region and both located in Israel’s exclusive economic zone of the Eastern Mediterranean. A year later, Israel secured prospects for fully supplying its domestic market and becoming a net gas exporter, leading to enhanced collaboration with Egypt in the energy sector. Cyprus’s discovery of the Aphrodite gas field (around 160 bcm) in 2011, and finally, the discovery of an Egyptian “super” gas field in 2015 (estimated to hold around 850 bcm of natural gas), strengthened the view that the region could now eye the European market. Initially, it seemed that the region was transitioning into a period of greater energy cooperation and security. This development was accompanied by the notion that “gas diplomacy” could have a transformative effect on relations among countries in the region and beyond.

Established in January 2019, the “Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum” (EMGF) exemplified this trend. It convened annually, bringing together energy ministers from its member countries, including Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Greece, Cyprus, France, and Italy. The United States, the EU, and the World Bank, also participated in the meetings under “observer” status. The exclusion of Türkiye, due to its strained relations and disagreements with most member states, had in some cases aggravated tensions (most notably with Greece in the summer of 2020 when the two countries came to the brink of war). Still, the Forum continued to maintain that it could serve as a mechanism for energy cooperation and greater regional integration. In this, it has enjoyed some success.

Indeed, some founding members leveraged the now-defunct “EastMed Pipeline,” which was to carry Israeli and Cypriot gas 1,900 kilometers under the sea to Europe via Greece to further strengthen their political, military, and economic ties. In January 2016, the tripartite Israel-Greece-Cyprus collaboration in the energy sector reached a significant milestone with the first high-level summit among the three countries, focusing on regional security and other pertinent issues. These meetings received active support from Washington, with then U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo participating in the sixth trilateral summit in March 2019. 

Moreover, Washington facilitated a groundbreaking maritime boundary agreement between Israel and Lebanon, enabling both countries that remained technically “at war” with each other to initiate gas exploration and drilling activities in previously disputed waters.

Russia’s war in Ukraine also maintained the EastMed gas high on the agenda, and although the region’s capacity for gas exports to the EU remains constrained (Israeli gas exports constitute less than 15 percent of the 155 bcm that Russia supplied to the EU in 2021), Mediterranean gas resources are still considered a valuable alternative for European governments aiming to diversify their energy sources and decrease dependence on Moscow. In pursuit of this objective, the EU signed a memorandum of understanding with Egypt and Israel in June 2022, facilitating the transportation of gas from either country to Europe via Egypt’s two underutilized liquefied natural gas facilities: the Shell-operated Idku facility and the Eni-operated Damietta plant.

In 2023, EMGF members also successfully reached an agreement to develop Gaza Marine, a natural gas field located off the coast of the Gaza Strip. The field’s development had been the subject of dispute for several decades, but a breakthrough came when the Palestinian side secured a “written approval” from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the implementation of the plan was scheduled to commence in October. As per the terms of the agreement, the Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company (EGAS) would lead a consortium, obtaining a 45 percent stake in the Gaza Marine concession. In return, 4.5 percent of this stake would be allocated to EGAS. The consortium’s responsibility would be to extract the gas for purchase by Egypt, with transportation facilitated through a gas pipeline connecting the field to Arish. The remaining portion of the concession would be divided between the Palestinian Investment Fund and the Federation of Arab Contractors, each receiving a 27.5 percent share of the field.

Then came the Gaza war. Admittedly, the immediate impact of the war so far has been minimal, and does not appear to have caused a significant shift from the previously established dynamics. The war initially resulted in temporarily halting operations at Israel’s Tamar gas field. Tamar also functions as a transit point for the gas from Leviathan destined for Egypt, so operations along the East Mediterranean Gas Pipeline (EMG), which transports Israeli gas to Egypt, were also disrupted. Chevron resumed operations at the Tamar field and restored gas supply to Egypt via the EMG pipeline in mid-November 2023, causing limited disruption and some initial delay in the resumption of Egyptian LNG exports.

More notably perhaps, following the beginning of the Gaza war, Egypt also postponed its plans to develop the Gaza Marine gas field. Since October 7th, negotiations between Egyptian and Palestinian officials have reportedly not addressed the Gaza Marine project.

Still, most energy companies such as Chevron, appear committed to regional investment plans. Additionally, key EMGF members, notably Israel and Cyprus, have put on their “business as usual” hats regarding their integration plans for the broader region. The Israeli Energy Ministry’s unveiling of the outcomes of its fourth offshore bidding round on October 29th—revealing the allocation of 12 exploration licenses evenly distributed between two consortia led by Italian oil and gas giant Eni and Azerbaijani SOCAR—is a case in point. Moreover, in early December 2023, it was revealed that Chevron had reached an agreement with the government of Cyprus over the particulars of the company’s development plans for the Aphrodite gas field. While specifics of the agreement have not yet been disclosed, the Cypriot Ministry of Energy stated that it had received a letter from Chevron confirming alignment on the broader framework for exploiting the field.

And even though there has been a history of public discontent in Egypt (but also Jordan) regarding energy trade with Israel—including several attacks on pipeline infrastructure in the Sinai region in recent years—this sentiment has not posed a significant threat to gas imports from Israel in either country. While the ongoing war and the mounting civilian casualties in Gaza may potentially alter this situation, it is unlikely that the authorities in Cairo and Amman will bow to public pressure so much to suspend Israeli imports.

As for exports to Europe, the uncertain prospects for LNG exports from Egypt are perhaps unwelcome news, but others had already pointed to the resurgence of gas and power shortages in Egypt preceding the war, questioning the potential for substantial exports. Besides, ample quantities of gas are said to remain available in the market, and Europe has mitigated the shortage of gas from Russia by obtaining supplies from alternative sources, primarily liquefied gas from the United States and other regions.

Yet some caution is still necessary. For energy markets, the ongoing war will prolong uncertainty regarding the future of the EastMed gas industry and its ability to emerge as a major exporter to European or other markets. An escalation of the war could potentially impact Suez Canal shipping costs, subsequently elevating the price of Qatari LNG, which has emerged as a notable alternative energy source for Europe following the reduction of Russian gas imports since 2022. Additionally, if Iran becomes directly involved in the conflict, it could heighten risks and, consequently, costs for LNG vessels traversing the Strait of Hormuz.

Perhaps more worrying would be potential political fallout. Eastern Mediterranean is beset with other armed and political disputes; and the ones involving Cyprus, Türkiye, and Greece remain potential flashpoints that could escalate into a wider regional conflagration.

Indeed, efforts to exploit gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean both fuel and are complicated by a decades-old dispute in Cyprus between the island’s Greek Cypriot population (which controls the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus) and Turkish Cypriots (represented by the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC) and recognized only by Türkiye). When the latest round of peace talks between the two parties collapsed in 2017, this was quickly followed by a hardening of the positions, both in relation to settling the dispute on the island, but also regarding discussions on exploiting the energy resources around it. In an ensuing tit-for-tat diplomatic escalation, the Republic of Cyprus secured EU backing to punish Türkiye through sanctions, while Athens and Ankara faced each other off in the Aegean in the summer of 2020 in one of the most dangerous standoffs in decades.

Türkiye and Greece softened their rhetoric after the February 2023 earthquakes, when Greece dispatched aid and rescue teams, and Turkish vessels so far appear not to have proceeded with exploration in disputed zones around the island. Rapprochement with Greece was part of Türkiye’s recent foreign policy, marked by efforts towards reconciliation and normalization across various domains. These initiatives encompassed the restoration of ties with Egypt, symbolized by a handshake between Türkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi—alongside Erdoğan’s official visit to the United Arab Emirates and his first meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman since the tragic murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

Türkiye also sought to improve the relationship with Israel as part of a wider foreign policy of smoothing over fractious ties with regional powers, and following the visit by the Israeli President Isaac Herzog, ambassadors were reappointed in both capitals. Erdoğan also met Netanyahu for the first time in September 2023, a month before the war in Gaza, and they both pledged greater cooperation between their respective countries.

But the Gaza war put an end to this trend. Türkiye has since strongly condemned Israeli actions and pledged support for Palestinians. This support has become more tangible, especially with the decision to introduce an export ban on certain Turkish goods being sold to Israel. An additional sign of Turkish solidarity is reflected in the fact that a second Gaza flotilla was organized, led by a Turkish NGO that was behind the effort that gained the world’s attention in 2010. Back then, an Israeli raid on a flotilla that included a Turkish ship killed 10 people and sparked a diplomatic crisis between Türkiye and Israel. This time around, ships set sail in late April 2024, raising questions about the potential response if Israel refuses to yield. The urgency for additional food aid became evident after Israel’s deadly airstrikes on a convoy for the aid group World Central Kitchen (WCK) in early April, prompting the NGO to withdraw from Gaza. Supported by the UAE, WCK had become one of the more efficient aid providers, establishing a logistics hub in Cyprus and delivering aid via a makeshift jetty on the Gazan coast.

The shift in stance also reflects domestic political dynamics in Türkiye, with the New Welfare Party gaining support in recent elections by criticizing the government’s ties with Israel and perceived lack of support for Palestinians. The shift could also enhance Türkiye’s regional influence and popularity across the Middle East and North Africa. Yet, with the U.S. military constructing a pier on the Gazan coast for aid shipments, a new Gaza flotilla could serve as a symbolic challenge to Washington and Israel, potentially elevating Türkiye’s role in the conflict.

There is also uncertainty surrounding Türkiye’s position on Cypriot energy prospects. It would be safe to assume that Ankara will react if Chevron proceeds with developments in the Aphrodite field, risking too the recent improvement of bilateral relations between Ankara and Athens. It is important to note that the Turkish Foreign Minister proposed once again the longstanding Turkish position of exploring ways to share gas resources between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, even without a comprehensive resolution to the Cyprus issue. The seriousness of this proposal and the feasibility of persuading all parties to embrace Ankara’s offer is yet to stand the test of time. However, the recent announcement by the Cypriot Energy Minister about potential pipeline plans—more specifically that the war may provide an “impetus” to plans for a pipeline conveying offshore natural gas to Cyprus for processing and shipping to foreign markets—should be treated with caution, as this could once again exacerbate tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean.


All Around Uncertainty

The 2011 Arab uprisings had significant consequences for the Middle East, sparking conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen—and shifting power dynamics towards the Gulf region. Among the pivotal changes was the inception of the Abraham Accords in 2020, marking a fundamental shift in the entire region. The Accords, offering peace in exchange for economic incentives, sought to establish normalized relations between Israel and Arab nations such as Bahrain, the UAE, Morocco, and more recently, Sudan. This normalization aimed to position Israel as a recognized player in the region. In tandem, the latter also positioned itself as a key player within “gas diplomacy” in a bid to further improve relations and reap economic benefits while driving energy sector integration in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Yet these paradigm-shifts and diplomatic moves had mixed results, even prior to the war in Gaza. The so-called gas diplomacy has intensified competition between Türkiye, on the one hand, and the Republic of Cyprus, Greece, and Egypt, on the other. The normalization between Arab states and Israel has also faced a number of challenges, most notably when it came to the latter normalizing ties with the Saudis.

Thus, the trend towards normalization in the region, which also comprises the path towards Saudi-Israeli normalization and Saudi-Iranian rapprochement are, for the time being, among the key losing alignments post-October 7th. Despite the fact that they share common interests—most notably the need for urgent de-escalation—persistent tension among these actors due to their regional ties and alignments (such as in Lebanon or in Yemen), has led the Saudi government to step back from the path toward normalization with Israel or Iran, however temporarily.

Normalization has also long alarmed the Kingdom of Jordan, which it believes would have damaging effects on the country’s stability and the survival of the regime. Indeed, for the Jordanian monarchy, normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab countries will not only hinder the practicability of implementing the “two-state solution,” but may also have negative effects on its own regime. The idea of Jordan “becoming an alternative homeland for the Palestinians” is perceived as a further threat that also applies to Egypt, if the Palestinians in southern part of Gaza cross the Rafah border. It is also for this reason that Jordan’s downing of Iranian drones during April 13th, 2024 attacks is not solely an attempt by the Kingdom to stand with Tel Aviv, but an effort to avert any possible regional escalation.

Even without this sort of expansion, the prolonging of the war in Gaza carries the potential of further political division to which the Eastern Mediterranean would hardly be immune. Given the uncertainty of the situation, the risks include not only a significant impact on the gas and oil sectors, delaying regional governments’ energy plans, but also renewed tensions—especially if Türkiye’s relations with Israel and the United States deteriorate further.

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