The Strategic Implications of Israel’s Turn to the Sea
On Aug. 4, forces from 10 countries joined the Israeli navy in Mighty Waves, a four-day exercise simulating a humanitarian support operation responding to a major earthquake along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
The exercise is further indication — beyond the expansion of sea-based activities beginning last decade — that Israel is in the midst of a “turn to the sea”: a systematic allocation of national, corporate, and civil society resources toward the nation’s maritime domain. As many regional actors, including Egypt, Turkey, and Iran, are naval powers, and as global actors such as Russia and the United States have a naval presence in the region, Israel’s evolution has broader implications for regional security.
The country’s new maritime focus includes six major elements, some of which are interrelated: the discovery, production, and subsequent dependence on natural gas from the sea; an expansion of the navy; the leveraging of this newly energized navy as a significant tool in military diplomacy and alliance-building; the development and subsequent dependence on seawater desalination facilities for water supply; new regulatory frameworks for the sea; and an alliance with Cyprus and Greece.
In contrast, Israel’s reorientation has been less structured. It is mostly the cumulative outcome of three developments. First, after the discovery of significant gas depots off Israeli shores starting in the late 1990s, Israel swiftly developed the natural gas fields, and gas became Israel’s main source of energy as well as an important export. This, in turn, contributed to the expansion of Israel’s navy which was entrusted in 2013 with the duty of protecting the new assets. Israel’s excess gas provided it with a potential platform for regional cooperation and contributed to an emerging quasi-alliance with Cyprus and Greece, which includes possible joint gas export projects. The discoveries also forced the Israeli government and the public to pay more attention to the sea, which was — for most of Israel’s history — a neglected space in the national consciousness and in resource allocation. The Israeli government developed a legal framework to allow planning and zoning in the coastal areas and in the sea. Internationally, while Israel had not signed the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, it had accepted it de facto. Alongside government action, the gas findings led to various responses in civil society. Some universities expanded, or launched new, maritime-related research institutions, and activists organized to block the development of sea-based infrastructure that is part of the gas transfer activity.
Concerns about Iran’s nuclear potential inspired Israel’s revived interest in naval platforms. The international community widely presumes Israel has had a nuclear arsenal for decades. However, Israeli logic is probably that an Iran armed with a nuclear weapon demands the acquisition of a survivable, second-strike capability. Enter Israel’s submarine flotilla that has doubled in size in the last few years. The new submarines are equipped with state-of-the-art air independent propulsion technology that improves their stealth and functionality over longer distances.
The dramatic decline in the cost of seawater reverse osmosis has forced Israel to take its maritime security more seriously. This allowed the Israeli government to launch in 2008 an ambitious desalination program sourcing from the Mediterranean. Israel had long suffered from water shortages, which peaked in the 2000s as the country faced a decade-long drought. Today, the country boasts five major water desalination plants, which provide more than 50 percent of Israel’s overall water consumption, and 80 percent of its residential and commercial water needs. Israel’s new dependence on the Mediterranean for its water encouraged the Israeli government as well as the country’s civil society to protect the seas and plan for possible environmental disasters. Alleviating Israel’s dependency on water allows it more leverage in current relationships and in future agreements with neighboring Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and possibly Syria.
Israel’s reinvigorated maritime presence is already affecting the country’s interactions in its immediate vicinity, but it has the potential to lead to even more dramatic changes. It opens the possibility for greater Israeli integration into an emerging East Mediterranean region. Rejected by the Arab world since its founding in 1948, Israel is generally divorced from its immediate Middle Eastern environment. Israel’s political evolution and ethnic makeup are vastly different from the countries around it, and the decades-old conflict means that very few goods, ideas, or people have moved since 1948 between Israel and its immediate neighbors. The limited interactions that did take place were either secretive or hostile, and many times violent: wars, ethnic clashes, and economic boycotts. Though Israel has formal peace accords with Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority, relations with all three are cold and do not include, in the case of Jordan and Egypt, any significant commercial, cultural, or civil society aspects.
Israeli activity in the Mediterranean could stimulate improved ties with others in the region. The country’s resource-deprived neighbors could benefit from a close, affordable energy source and water supply. Indeed, Jordan has been importing small quantities of Israeli natural gas since 2017 and enjoys a consistent transfer of water. Meanwhile, Egypt and the Palestinians have signed preliminary agreements with Israel. In 2014, Israeli and Palestinian companies signed an agreement for the supply of gas valued at $1.2 billion. In July 2019, Israeli and Egyptian corporations concluded a $15 billion export deal.
At the same time, a growing naval footprint may further distance Israel politically from its Middle Eastern neighbors. Analysts can understand alignment with Greece and Cyprus as a westward-facing move toward the Mediterranean and away from the Middle East. It is a coalition of democratic, non-Muslim countries facing threats from Muslim regional actors.
Alongside Turkey, and possibly Egypt, Israel is the East Mediterranean’s most powerful state in military terms. Its integration into the new East Mediterranean region could also mean a greater regional security role. For example, Cyprus and Greece fear Turkey Some of the current tensions are over Turkish naval actions that prevent drilling for gas in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone between its shores and Israel. If the conflict escalates, it will not be a surprise if Cyprus and Greece look to Israel for assistance. The context of Turkish-Israeli relations — currently at a low point — is critical here. After decades of strong relations, ties between the two countries started to fall apart as then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan consolidated power in Turkey. Tensions culminated in a 2010 Israeli raid on a Turkish blockade-busting ship headed to Gaza, which resulted in the death of 10 activists.
Israel’s growing naval power gives it more leverage in its conflict with Iran. As noted, Israel perceives Iran as a regional challenger. Specifically, Iran’s support of Hizballah in Lebanon, its military bases in Syria, and the apparent escalation of its nuclear program. Indeed, there are many reports suggesting that Israel is cooperating in secret with some Gulf states in order to contain Iran. In a recent statement, the Israeli foreign minister disclosed that Israel is participating actively in the American-led naval coalition in the Persian Gulf. This development suggests that the naval aspects of Israel’s turn to the sea allow it now to operate near Iranian territory.
Ehud Eiran and Aviad Rubin are associate professors at the University of Haifa. Eiran is also a visiting scholar, Department of Political Science, Stanford University (2019-2020). Eiran and Rubin are among the co-founders of the university’s Maritime Policy & Strategy Research Center. They are the co-authors of “Regional Maritime Security in the Eastern Mediterranean: Expectations and Reality,” and, with Yael Teff-Seker, “Israel Turns to the Sea” and “Israel’s ‘Turn to the Sea’ and Its Effect on Israeli Regional Policy.” Rubin is a lieutenant commander (res.) in the Israeli navy and the director of the academic program of the Navy Cadet Course. Eiran is a retired army major, former assistant foreign policy advisor to the prime minister, and former academic director of Israel’s National Defense College.
Image: Creative Commons (Photo by Avishai Teicher)