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Regional Architecture in the Eastern Mediterranean: Challenges and Opportunities at the Current Crossroads

The natural gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean basin, and the strategic developments in the region over the past decade, have helped to “put it on the map,” making it a distinct sub-region in the international arena. The East Med project, the gas pipeline that was supposed to transport gas to Europe, illustrated the political-strategic importance of the region, and not necessarily the degree of practicality of the ambitious project, which now seems to be coming to a standstill. Moreover, the creative policy frameworks established: the triangles between Israel - Greece - Cyprus; Egypt - Greece - Cyprus; and other triangular attempts (with Jordan, the PA and recently also with the United Arab Emirates), highlighted the proven potential of the common interests cast in the region. 

The most ambitious structure is, of course, the Regional Gas Forum, which was founded in January 2019 with 8 members - Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Jordan, Italy, Palestine, and France, and two observers - the European Union and the United States. Lebanon was invited to take part in the creative project, but Israeli membership and the complex internal-external arena in Lebanon prevented the move, that was quite clear that the Lebanese had a genuine interest in. Truth be told, the player who was absent from this political-strategic process - Turkey - was, to a considerable extent, the "glue" that helped formulate this impressive architecture. Moreover, its uniqueness stems perhaps from two main aspects: one, pertains to substantial encounters of interests, identified between most of these actors; and the second, it is a regional framework that the initiative to establish was from the region and without linkage to any conflict, with an emphasis of course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Now, at the beginning of 2022, the East Mediterranean is facing an improved base, with proven potential for cooperation, but at the same time is facing a double challenge: how to deepen cooperation between its members; and how to produce an open and positive dialogue with the missing player - Turkey. Initially, it seems an impossible task, especially given the fact that the Turkish policy in recent years is seen as provocative by most (if not all) other players in the region. On the other hand, it is now clearer for Turkey and its adversaries, that an intensive and creative effort needs to be made to create a mechanism or some framework, that will allow for a political-strategic dialogue contributing to stability in the region. Turkey has felt uneasy and resentful, in the face of its exclusion from regional frameworks, and in recent months has tried to improve its relations with few countries in the region - Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The difficulties at home, in the economic and political arena, play a significant role. 

So, is it possible to find meeting points that will enable for a comprehensive process in the East Mediterranean, despite the deep disagreements between many actors? Clearly, this is a challenging task, one that may have been doomed to failure from the beginning. However, in view of the danger of escalation and miscalculation, in a region prone for that, it is necessary to try producing a political discourse that will help the dynamics that have already been cast in the region. 

First, we should have in mind four main insights: 

  • Many countries in the region have rightly recognized the promising potential that developments in the region have created and managed to produce close relationships. These now seem obvious, but this was not the case a decade ago. The Israeli – Greek – Cypriot Triangle is a clear example of identifying correctly the common interests arise, adopting the necessary policy to build a solid and close trust, and deepen their bilateral and as well trilateral relations. Similar process was taken between Israel and Egypt, bilaterally and regionally.     
  • The regional process, described above, was largely led by the countries of the region themselves, in a way that showcased the potential and significance of the region for the International Arena.
  • The Abraham Accords have created a potential common denominator between (some) of the Gulf states and those of the eastern part of the Middle East. Although it is too early to judge whether it will be possible to find practical meetings of interests that will strengthen the cooperation between the two sub-regions, it seems that the potential exists. The arithmetic political framework in the East Med may be adopted to some extent: how about an Israeli – Emirati – Turkish triangle, not overriding bilateral channels, trying to build trust and identify common spheres for cooperation.
  • The discoveries of natural gas were a catalyst for the collaborations created but could equally drag the area into an escalating tension. However, what turns out, at least for the time being, is that the potential for energy cooperation is mostly regional. This can, albeit with immense difficulties, produce interesting interface points. Not to mention the great potential for cooperation on renewable, much needed field for creative and practical solutions, and less contentious.   

Beyond that, it is worth adopting two main principles, which will help create an improved understanding:  

  • The rules of international law as a main principle that should dictate the moves of all players in the region. A major point of contention between Turkey and all other players concerns the principles adopted by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This will not be easily resolved of course. However, Israel, for example, is not a party to the Convention on the Law of the Sea, but it agrees with its provisions and follows them, and was able to reach to agreements with its neighbors (though not yet with Lebanon) regarding their economic zones. In other words: even if it is (very) difficult to bridge the disputes in the region in this context, interim agreements, or informal understandings, should be found considering the overriding principle of respecting international law.
  • There is no a zero-sum game when it comes to relations between the countries of the region. Naturally, disagreements will remain in place at present stage, and meetings of strategic interests will also remain between some, or most, of the players in the region. This does not mean that one relationship should be conditioned, practically or rhetorically, on another. Israel has already made it clear that improving the political dialogue with Ankara will not come at the expense of the extremely close relationship and trust achieved with Greece and Cyprus. This will require considerable political maneuverability, but it is possible and achievable.  The key insight that emerges from the experience of the last decade in the Eastern Mediterranean is fascinating and challenging; it has been shown that countries in such a complex and multi-conflict region have been able to identify a strategic window of opportunity, overcome disputes and mistrust, and establish a promising regional framework, which is indeed at the beginning of its path. This challenge continues to be at their doorstep, creating a constructive discourse that develops paths for understandings and collaborations, even if not necessarily accompanied by the guise of a " love affair."  
CONTRIBUTOR
Michael Harari
Michael Harari

Michael Harari is a Retired Ambassador of Israel, who worked in different countries including Cyrpus, Egypt and Britain. He is a Policy Fellow at Mitvim, The Israeli Institute For Regional Foriegn Policies; a Lecturer at the Political Science Department in Yezreel Valley College in Israel; a Consultant on Strategy, Policy Planning and Energy.

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