Long ago, the Mediterranean was known as the Middle Sea, because for centuries it provided the principal means of communication between empires and civilizations. Today’s Mediterranean is reclaiming much of that historic legacy.
The limitless potential of the region was on full display during the sixth trilateral summit between Cyprus, Greece and Israel that took place in Jerusalem last week. The gathering was especially noteworthy because the United States, represented by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, also participated for the first time.
American strategic interests face challenges around the Eastern Mediterranean basin. The Shia-Sunni divide that has helped put the Middle East in even deeper turmoil is playing out on its shores, with the involvement of both state and non-state actors.
Turkey – once a paragon of stability and a source of great optimism for many in the West – has become increasingly authoritarian and unreliable. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strong-arm leadership has turned a “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy into one where Ankara has zero neighbors with which it doesn’t have problems.
And two interlocking crises, one economic and the other involving migration, have roiled the European Union, starting with its member-states along the Mediterranean.
Facing an unprecedented number of foreign policy flashpoints, the US risks being spread too thin to adequately address the challenges in the region and protect American interests. This is precisely where Israel, Greece and Cyprus come in.
First, there’s values affinity – it is in American national interests to support like-minded societies. For too long, Washington has had to look to states with questionable democratic credentials as its “go-to” partners in the region. This tripartite alliance of solid Western democracies breaks the mold.
Second, Cyprus, Greece and Israel provide important assets for Western security interests. Each state has already made substantial contributions on its own but taking their growing cooperation and coordination on counterterrorism, counterproliferation, search-and-rescue and maritime security to the next level will make the Eastern Mediterranean and Southeast Europe safer.
Souda Bay Naval Base in Greece and the British bases in Cyprus make these countries especially valuable for Western security interests, and expansion in both could allow the US, if needed, to decrease its reliance on the Incirlik base in volatile Turkey. Meanwhile, the US-Israel strategic link is both deep and wide-ranging.
Finally, there are the recent major discoveries of natural gas and ambitious plans for new underwater pipelines. American companies – Noble and ExxonMobil – are already the most significant players in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Israel and Cyprus. Just three weeks ago, ExxonMobil announced the world’s third-biggest gas find in the last two years off the coast of Cyprus.
Combining this discovery with existing Noble finds in the Israeli and Cypriot EEZs, the Zohr field in Egypt’s, and anything resulting from upcoming exploration in the region by ExxonMobil, Total and Eni could have important geopolitical, environmental and economic consequences. That these resources may be delivered to European markets through the planned EastMed pipeline makes Western democracies primary players in the region’s energy politics.
In the short term, these natural gas finds will help Eastern Mediterranean countries transition away from crude as a source of electricity generation and could provide economic stimulus for countries such as Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and Jordan that are emerging from economic crises or, in any case, sorely need a boost. Moreover, they provide an alternative to risky dependence on Russian gas, not only for Eastern Mediterranean countries, but also for the Balkans and Italy.
In the long term, energy diplomacy has the potential to transform the Eastern Mediterranean from a mere geographical designation to a vital political and economic entity. We have long argued that Eastern Mediterranean natural gas could be the “steel and coal of the 21st century,” recalling the founding basis of what is today the European Union.
Just as the interdependence of coal and steel helped end centuries of conflict in Western Europe, energy and electricity could begin to move the Eastern Mediterranean away from an era of wars, terrorism and insecurity.
That potential was evident when the first annual Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum took place in Cairo at the beginning of the year, forming an OPEC-like institution encompassing Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinians.
The US needs reliable allies, and for the first time in the region’s history can look primarily to those who share both interests and values. Greece, Cyprus and Israel are strong partners that can check malign influences in this region and the broader Middle East.
Washington should deepen American participation in these trilateral summits. And both the administration and Congress, which already has a Congressional Hellenic-Israel Alliance, should explore transforming the trilateral cooperation into a quadrilateral partnership.
A more stable, energy-independent and integrated Eastern Mediterranean will be a game changer in this vital part of the world and could serve as a model for future cross-border development far beyond.
Endy Zemenides is executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council and David Harris is CEO of American Jewish Committee (AJC). This article is published jointly with the Times of Israel.