Who knows what it is about the Eastern Mediterranean that causes such geopolitical complexity: the longstanding enmity between Turkey and Greece, the divided island of Cyprus, the devastating civil war in Syria and, of course, the perennial tension around the State of Israel. In recent years, a new political dimension has been created by the discovery of natural gas – and lots of it – in the sea between the Israeli coast and Cyprus. And it is a dimension that’s changed how Israel’s neighbours are responding to the current Israel-Hamas conflict. It is also a dimension that seems to have passed many observers by. 

Israel’s biggest gas field is the Leviathan field and it is well named. It is vast – one of the great discoveries of this century and contains enough natural gas to make Israel self-sufficient for the next 40 years and that’s likely an underestimate. There is an oil and gas aphorism that big fields only get bigger and there is no reason to think that Leviathan will be any different. There are other, smaller fields in Israel’s sector of the Mediterranean but Leviathan is the one that everyone has been talking about since it was discovered in 2010. 

Israel’s gas has also given the country greater weight in the Eastern Mediterranean as it works with Greece and Cyprus, and potentially even Turkey, on getting their gas to international markets especially as an alternative to Russian gas. It is not all sweetness and light. Lebanon claims that the Leviathan field extends into their territorial waters but the fact that the land border, from which territorial waters are defined, has never been agreed between Israel and Lebanon means that any claim would be tough to prove. 

Even better for Israel, as it found Leviathan it was starting the process of switching its power system from dirty coal to cleaner natural gas. Of course, Israel is a tiny country with 9.4 million people squeezed into a very small area so it’s not self-sufficient in anything else. However, if you were going to choose to be self-sufficient in something, natural gas is the one. This means that Israeli governments can, for the foreseeable future, be confident that the lights will go on when their citizens flick the switch. 

The Jordanian and Egyptian governments can have similar confidence but only because of Israeli gas. Israel is both self-sufficient and an exporter of natural gas and their two main export markets are Egypt and Jordan. There are plenty of good reasons, both internal and external, for these two countries not to be drawn into Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip but one of them is this new dependency on Israel’s gas. This is a big change from 2008 when Israel last went into Gaza and, be in no doubt, it is significant leverage and, it is leverage that Israel would unquestionably use. We can be quite certain that this has been made very clear to Cairo and Amman. The gas fields are also located a long way offshore from Gaza and are carefully defended by the Israel Defence Force so Israel – and its buyers – can have confidence that the gas will keep flowing no matter what is happening onshore. 

In 2016, the Mahama government in Ghana lost an election because of “dumsor” or what South Africans know as “load-shedding”, where power from the national grid is managed so that everyone experiences somewhere between 6-10 hours of power cuts every day. Cyril Ramaphosa’s ANC government in South Africa will be forced into coalition after next year’s election for the same reason. In the autumn of 2021, European governments paid over 12 times the long-term average for natural gas to ensure their gas storage was full ahead of the winter. Why? Because they knew, as well as the Jordanian and Egyptian governments know now, that a government that can’t keep the lights on is a government that will be punished by its people. The problem for Jordan and Egypt is that Israel knows it too. 

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