Oftentimes, Presidential economics drive policy and Mr. Trump’s first overseas trip symbolizes his concerns about terrorism and the creation of US jobs, jobs, jobs. But his much-heralded goal of achieving what has eluded his eight predecessors, a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, is doomed even before its starts. It seems economics has trumped politics, and, a peaceful solution, despite the expected promises of money and security, is not even remotely possible.
If it involves the Middle East, it involves oil, and Palestinian statehood is no exception. Despite the Oslo Accords requirements, Palestinian-Israeli cooperation in the exploration, development, and sale of oil and gas from the West Bank, Gaza, and the Occupied Territories is non-existent despite the discovery and exploitation of billions of dollars worth of oil and gas.
The annexation of the Golan Heights of Syria, which Israel seized and has continuously occupied since 1967, signaled a final rejection by “Bebe” Netanyahu of any commitment of Israel to a settlement with the Palestinians. Despite the affirmations on both sides and the eternal optimism of the Americans that all are working toward a solution, it is just rhetoric to cash-in on American promises of aid.
Why such pessimism? Because it is no surprise that a Noa fields spokesperson announced the discovery of approximately trillions cubic meters of natural gas reserves in the newly annexed territory. This projection of known reserves could place Israel in the top ten of countries with gas/oil reserves.
The Israelis previously canceled the joint exploration operations for oil and gas fields in the West Bank boundaries (Israel has continued independently – despite Oslo prohibitions) claiming that putting large sums of money into the hands of the Palestinians would merely feed additional terrorism.
Furthermore, the announcement several years ago of the Leviathan Basin gas finds estimated 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and a mean of 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas could lead Israel to an energy sufficient status and a net exporter of gas and probably oil.
The Israelis have contracted with Jordan and Egypt to build pipelines for direct export and are in negotiations with the EU for the development of an underwater gas line to service Europe via Cyprus.
While all this energy news is a big plus for Israel, there is one, little distraction – namely the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank. The EU precedent to limit or bar the importation to the EU of Israeli produced fruits and vegetables from the occupied territories could jeopardize the EU gas contracts.
There are reports circulating that the mineral and fishing grounds off Gaza have enriched the Israelis at the expense of the Palestinians. The latest energy discovery has created differing territorial claims by Israel, Lebanon, and Palestine. At the heart of the natural gas discoveries is Israel’s self-imposed naval blockade off the coast of the Gaza Strip, which has essentially denied the Palestinians’ access to their natural gas reserves as well as coveted fishing operations.
According to a May 2017 report by Stichting Onderzoek Multinationale Ondernemingen Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, research results and analysis highlight that Noble (NYSE: NBL) Energy’s gas exploration and extraction undertakings in the Mediterranean could be linked to some human rights abuses in the Palestinian and Lebanon territories.
The Gaza Marine fields have also been estimated to contain about 1 trillion cubic feet of reserves. But Israel has long claimed the expansion of that field, while under Hamas’ control, is considered an “existential threat” therefore the Israeli militarily has blocked its development.
The Levantine Basin stretches some 200 miles into the Mediterranean Sea and goes through the heart of what the US Energy Information Administration claim holds six times more natural gas than regional countries.
By definition, the Law of the Sea specifically says coastal states have a right to 200 miles of maritime territory. Nevertheless, due to the concave shape of the Eastern Mediterranean, each country within that territory must negotiation and compromise, a process many Palestinian people feel they have been left out of the discussions.
Recently, James Stocker, a professor of International affairs at Trinity Washington University, claimed the Palestinian people may have a case at an international tribunal. “The point is that there is this whole space off Israel and Palestine and it hasn’t properly been divided yet. So we don’t actually know what the boundaries are. By failing to make a claim, Palestinians may be forfeiting their rights to their lawful territory and the natural resources within,” Stocker said. “If you aren’t making claims about the boundaries of these zones, if you are not making claims to these resources, then, in effect, you don’t have a right to them. Unless you claim that they are yours, other countries can claim them and say, ‘Well, no one else claimed this so, of course, we took it’,” he concluded.
On top of that, Farsnews reported that Israel has already signed a $4 billion agreement to sell the European Union oil/gas extracted from Palestinian shores.
The pipeline is expected to transfer gas from the occupied Palestinian coastline to the EU. It will pass through Cyprus, Greece, and Italy and is expected to rival the Russia/Turkey pipeline into Southern Europe.
The Israeli-EU deal could also adversely affect Lebanon by drilling into its Law of the Sea protected oil/gas territories.
A US Geological Survey estimated in 2010 that the Levant Basin comprises “a mean of 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and a mean of 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas.” If these estimates are correct, it means the Eastern Mediterranean is amongst the world’s top producers of natural gas. The recovery of the gas/oil in the north side of the Levant Basin would put the Syrian port of Tartus in play. The corridor route flows along the coastlines of Lebanon, Israel, as well as the Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile back 2015, Afek, an Israeli subsidiary of Genie Energy and a US oil company, jointly announced they found vast oil/gas reserves under the Golan Heights. Genie’s principal geologist in Israel, Yuval Bartov said he believed the basin had the “potential of billions of barrels.”
“The Israeli energy and water ministry has licensed Afek to drill 10 experimental wells over three years in a 400-square kilometer area, about a third of the Golan’s total territory,” according to the Middle East Eye news agency.
At the time Afek claimed its discoveries could make Israel energy independent. However, the company did not include the Palestinian government in its assessments. But a report concluded that the discovery could turn Israel into an oil/gas exporter, something that Palestine says amounts to theft from its countrymen.
The issue pre-dates the Trump administration.
Under the Obama administration, the territorial dispute essentially indicated “(if) the US recognized Israel’s illegal annexation of the Golan, it would likely clear the way for Israel to plunder any economically viable reserves located there. Netanyahu appears to have long harbored an interest in tapping the Golan’s potential for oil.”
Natural gas reserves were first discovered off the coast of the Gaza Strip in 1999. At the time, the Palestinian Authority awarded a 25-year exploration license to British Gas Group, to drill offshore of the Gaza Strip. In 2000, the Brits drilled two wells, Gaza Marine-1 and Gaza Marine-2. The original discovery of natural gas reserves estimated that approximately 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas were waiting to be extracted and sold to nearby countries.
Plus, a 2016 UN Special Rapporteur said: “Israel, the Occupying Power, effectively controls the economic and social development of the Palestinian territory […]. Measures that amount to violations of the right to development include the blockade of Gaza and the ensuing collapse of its economy, […] exploitation and appropriation of Palestinian natural resources, the regime of formal economic dependency, unilateral control over Palestine’s external borders, the encumbering of personal and business mobility, restrictions on the use of agricultural lands, limitations on Palestinian fishery.”
While there is a dearth of news on the evolving oil and gas exploration of the Levant, there can be no doubt that Israel has seized the momentum in exploiting this mineral wealth, which means the likelihood of Mr. Trump being able to negotiate any solution to the Israel-Palestine dispute is DOA. There is no likelihood Israel will grant concessions to the Palestinians that will render them eventual claimants for the oil and gas wealth the Israelis are enjoying.