President Vladimir Putin has put a fresh offer to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for a stake in the development of new Israeli gas fields in the Mediterranean and a contract for its national Gazprom to lay the future gas export pipeline to Turkey.
From there, he wants Israeli natural gas to flow through Russian pipelines to Europe.
Putin in a word is pitching for Russian control of Israel’s gas exports. His selling point is linked directly to another Russian strategic step, first revealed here by DEBKA Weekly:
Moscow is about to embark on military intervention in the Syrian war.
The estimated investment for fully developing Israel’s Leviathan, one of the biggest offshore gas discoveries in recent years, is $7-10 billion. A pipeline from Israel to Turkey would come to another roughly $2bn.
It is not the first time that the Russian leader as propositioned Israel on its gas bonanza. In 2012, secret meetings took place between Russian and Israeli gas experts and investors, mostly in London.
Those tentative exchanges were shelved in mid-2014, mainly because the US was furiously opposed to Israel contracting business with Moscow shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine and was penalized with US and European sanctions.
Then, too, relations between the Russian leader and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Edrogan were at a low point.
First “Russo-Syrian Military Commission” is born
But this year, from late July and early August, Putin took a fresh look at the fluctuating Middle East map and decided to reassess his strategy. He found the Turkish operation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) to be useless, and the arrangement for US air strikes over Syria to be coordinated with Turkish ground action getting nowhere. Indeed, in his view, these faltering steps had allowed ISIS to evolve into a palpable threat to Russia itself.
The signs of Moscow’s intention to take a hand in fighting ISIS in Syria include the creation in recent weeks of the first “Russo-Syrian Military Commission,” designed to supervise Russian forces destined in Syria to put up an effective fight against ISIS – and not just to rescue Bashar Assad from his military straits.
There is also informed speculation that the six Russian MiG-31 Foxhound interceptor aircraft from Moscow which landed Tuesday, Aug. 18, at the Mezze Airbase of Damascus international airport, are to be part of the new deployment.
Russian military in Syria – on the spot for securing the gas fields
How does all this tie in with Moscow’s quest for a partnership in Israel’s gas?
Putin maintains that the forthcoming Russian military presence in Syria, including air and naval units, would offer the only credible shield for protecting Israel’s offshore gas fields.
Leviathan has estimated reserves of 22 trillion cubic feet (tcf) or 622 billion cubic meters. The Russians estimate the reserves as quadruple this amount.
As far back as March 2013, when the Russian leader talked to Netanyahu in Israel – and again when they met in Sochi three months later – he pushed the argument that Russian forces alone were competent to secure the gas fields against attack by any of the groups taking part in the Syria conflict, because of their heft in Damascus, which also worked as a deterrent against the Lebanese Hizballah sabotaging the gas fields.
Putin now proposes setting up a joint Russian-Israeli task force. This would be the first instance of Russian-Israeli military cooperation.
This initiative is the counterpart of another Moscow project: a joint Russian-Egyptian task force for securing the Suez Canal and its shipping lanes, which Putin put before Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi during his visit to Moscow Tuesday, Aug. 25.
Progress in talk with Turkey as anchor client and pipeline partner
Moscow is aware of the negotiations the Israeli government and the Noble Energy-Delek gas consortium are holding with Turkey on the selfsame issue of an underwater pipeline to carry Leviathan gas under water to the Turkish coast. The field is slated to begin production in 2018 or 2019.
The talks with Turkey are at an advanced stage.
The Erdogan government is willing to cover a large part of the investment. Turkey's overall gas consumption is seven times that of Israel and growing fast, expected to double in the next 20 years. At the moment, Ankara is heavily reliant for its gas on Russia, from whom it purchases 40 billion BCM a year. The Turks are keen to reduce their dependence on Moscow by using Israel as a competitive source.
Gas is also piped in to Turkey from Iran and Azerbaijan as well as high-priced liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Algeria. Ankara has stepped up its purchases from those sources to cut down on gas imports from Gazprom.
The Turkish-Israeli talks are now down to discussing the price per MMBTu (British thermal units in millions) to be charged by Israel.
While markets for Israel’s Mediterranean gas are eagerly awaited in Egypt and Jordan, Turkey is seen as an anchor customer for Leviathan’s product.
Israeli consortium divided over Turkish connection
The Israeli partners of the consortium are keen on going ahead for a deal with Turkey, but the American side, Texas-based Noble Energy, is leery, raising the fear in private parleys that Turkey faces the danger of a radical Islamist revolution, whose leaders might without warning cut off the inflow of Leviathan gas to its premier outlet.
Netanyahu has been enthusiastic about the deal with Ankara, also because it holds out the prospect of better relations with Turkey, on which he places high strategic value. He has picked up hints from the Erdogan regime that this improvement is indeed in prospect.
But Netanyahu is now faced with a new proposition from Moscow. He must take into account that Israel’s acceptance of that proposition would leave Russia in continued domination of Turkey’s sources of gas and its export pipeline to Europe and determine how that suits Israel’s interests.