The three gas fields dubbed Tamar, Dalit and Leviathan, which Israeli entrepreneurs struck in the past year off Israel's Mediterranean coast are currently estimated to hold reserves pegged at 25 trillion cubic feet. More than enough for Israel's energy needs, it would make it a gas exporter and revolutionize an economy which has grown regardless of a paucity of natural resources.
The Mediterranean gas bonanza did not go unnoticed by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who has a sharp instinct for opportunities in the field of energy.
Beirut was quick to accuse Israel of preparing to pump gas from wells located in Lebanese territorial waters. (Hashem Safieddine, head of the Iranian-backed Hizballah's executive council, announced his movement would not let Israel "loot" Lebanese gas resources).
Putin did not miss that either – although the Lebanese accusation is completely unfounded.
He noted that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri held an otherwise unnoticed meeting in Nicosia on Oct. 21 with Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias. Under cover of a discussion ranging over regional and international developments, Hariri privately asked the Cypriot leader to help Beirut map the borders of oil and gas fields in the Mediterranean.
His object was to draw a line in the water against Israel taking control of more gas fields further north.
Christofias delayed his answer so as to first brief and consult with Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou and ask his permission for this step. However, in view of the strategic, military and economic alliance Athens and Jerusalem have begun developing this past year, Papandreou has held back from responding to the Cypriot leader's request. This was tantamount to a no.
Russia's goodwill gift to Hariri: A weapons package
Putin then went into direct action, Last week, Hariri was urgently summoned to Moscow for a two-day visit (Nov. 16-17). With his back against the wall in a life-and-death struggle to preserve his government, he was given the rare honor of an elaborate joint welcome by both Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report that Putin used the occasion to ask the beleaguered Lebanese leader how Moscow could help Lebanon place itself on the map of oil and gas fields and pipelines in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Russian prime minister cynically pressed his case regardless of the possible imminence of Hariri's ouster by Hizballah. He assured his guest that Lebanon could only exploit its oil and gas wealth under the sea by bringing Moscow in as energy partner. In return, he promised major Russian investment in the Lebanese economy and restore Beirut to its old standing as financial capital of the Middle East. Russia would also provide the funds, equipment and skilled labor for developing offshore energy resources as well as furnishing the Lebanese armed forces with advanced weapons at token prices for guarding those resources.
The Russian and Lebanese prime ministers are reported by our sources to have reached an understanding.
As a mark of goodwill, Hariri left Moscow bearing a promised Russian gift to Lebanon of six MI 24 helicopters 31 T-72 tanks, 36 130 mm cannons complete with half a million shells and thirty thousand artillery shells.
A Russian donation on this scale to a country outside Moscow's sphere of influence is unprecedented.
Their understanding extended to three key areas:
Putin never misses a gas pipeline
1. They would discuss big Russian firms building a number of gas-powered electricity plants in Lebanon, backed by Kremlin guarantees and financing – against a Lebanese guarantee to purchase their output over a 30-year period.
2. The possible diversion of Russian gas through a Turkish pipeline to be linked to the Arab pipeline which reaches the Lebanese-Syrian border.
3. Moscow offered to build three nuclear power plants in Turkey which Russian firms would be committed to sell Ankara and Beirut for three decades.
The third understanding was the real reason for Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Beirut Wednesday, Nov. 24 and his talks with Hariri. Erdogan has acquired a new interest in defusing the tensions in Lebanon and keeping Hariri in power.
None of this prevented Putin from sending a delegation to Tel Aviv this week to Tel Aviv for an approach to Israel's gas tycoons. On offer were Russian investments in funds and equipment and a Russian-Israeli partnership in laying the gas pipeline which Israel and Greece are planning as part of their evolving strategic alliance.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources say that, in addition to his abiding interest in energy, Vladimir Putin keeps his eye on the big Russian naval base going up in Tartous, Syria. As headquarters of the Russian Black Sea and Mediterranean fleets, this base will also guard Moscow's investments and holdings in gas and oil fields in the Mediterranean.