Alpher discusses the ramifications of the inauguration of natural gas supply from the Tamar field in the Mediterranean to the Israeli infrastructure, if the Israeli-Turkish rapprochement, based on Israel's apology over the Mavi Marmara affair is relevant to the natural gas export issue, what he makes of a key Israeli general advocating that Israel consider establishing a security strip on the Syrian side of the Golan border in order to keep Syria-based Salafi revolutionary elements from attacking Israel, and comments on last week's revelation by Israel's Civil Administration for the West Bank that over the past 33 years less than one percent of state-owned land in the West Bank had been allotted to Palestinians, and 39 percent to Israeli settlements and related infrastructure.
Q. In the spirit of the Passover holiday, let's start with the good news: the inauguration of natural gas supply from the Tamar field in the Mediterranean to the Israeli infrastructure. What are the ramifications?
A. Natural gas from Tamar began flowing to the Israeli mainland over the weekend. The Tamar field alone is estimated to be capable of supplying all of Israel's natural gas needs, including for electricity production, for the next 20 years at least. Within a few more years, the even larger Leviathan field will also begin supplying gas, primarily for export. Together with Cyprus' adjacent Aphrodite field, these are the largest natural gas discoveries globally in recent years.
From an economic standpoint, this event should within a few months begin lowering energy costs in Israel. It is also expected to add one percent to Israel's GDP in the coming year, bringing it to 3.3 percent, and to provide additional tax revenue. Once exports begin, Israel can officially consider itself an energy power and begin to fill its new sovereign fund with some of the profits. And it can offer relatively cheap natural gas supplies to neighboring Palestine and Jordan.
At the regional level, Israel no longer needs Egyptian gas supplies, which in any case ceased around two years ago--first due to sabotage of a pipeline by radicalized Sinai Bedouin, and more recently by decision of the new Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Cairo. So Tamar field supply removes a point of friction between Cairo and Jerusalem. But it also effectively neutralizes one of the few areas where the two countries could potentially cooperate on regional infrastructure.
Finally, the inauguration of gas supply from the adjacent Israeli and Cypriot fields is another building block in a growing joint Israeli-Cypriot energy initiative that has a strong security dimension. Security worries derive from threats by Turkey, which disputes Cyprus' EEZ (exclusive economic zone, where maritime drilling is taking place), as well as by jihadi terrorists based in Lebanon, Gaza and Egyptian Sinai. Indeed, as the project grows and gas is delivered to the Israeli mainland, so do the possibilities of attacking it. Accordingly, maritime anti-terrorist measures represent a growing new security sector in Israel for both the Israel Navy and private security companies.
Q. Apropos threats from Turkey, is the Israeli-Turkish rapprochement, based on Israel's apology over the Mavi Marmara affair, relevant to the natural gas export issue?
A. A pipeline from the still-developing Leviathan field to Turkey is the most economical and efficient means of exporting Israeli gas. Turkey, with its booming economy, is in constant need of additional energy input. It also hosts a regional junction of gas pipelines linking up to Europe--another potential customer for Israeli natural gas.
But the rapprochement is still in its infancy, with Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan currently exploiting it to aggrandize his domestic political image and seemingly laying on additional conditions for completing the deal (e.g., he must be allowed to mediate between Israel and a reunited--thanks to an effort he plans--Fateh and Hamas). Even if all goes smoothly in upcoming negotiations over the compensation that Israel has agreed to pay for the nine Turks killed on board the Mavi Marmara in May 2010, there is no guarantee that upgraded Israeli-Turkish relations will be stable enough to support a joint pipeline venture from Leviathan to the Turkish mainland.
Then there is the Cyprus aspect. PM Binyamin Netanyahu hastened last week to reassure Greece and Cyprus that Israel's growing commercial and security partnership with them would not be affected by the improvement in Israeli-Turkish relations, which at least for the time being are likely to focus on Syria. Given the scope of territorial disputes between Turkey and Cyprus, together with Nicosia's acute economic crisis, it will not be easy for Israel to balance a rapprochement with Ankara with the obligations it has undertaken toward Athens and Nicosia.
Q. Apropos the Syria crisis, a key Israeli general has reportedly advocated that Israel consider establishing a security strip on the Syrian side of the Golan border in order to keep Syria-based Salafi revolutionary elements from attacking Israel. What do you make of this?
A. Statements to this effect attributed to Major General Yair Golan, OC Northern Command, have recently been quoted by not always reliable sources like the British Sunday Times and israelandstuff.com. So they have to be taken with a grain of salt. But to the best of my knowledge, they have not been denied or refuted by the IDF. In explaining his proposal, Golan allegedly stated that the southern Lebanese security strip, which existed between 1983 and 2000 and is his model for a strip in Syria, "was one of the most worthy security investments ever made by the State of Israel".
It's hard to know where to begin dissecting this extremely problematic idea. For most Israelis, the southern Lebanese strip was a black security hole: a source of constant friction with Hezbollah and the Lebanese government that generated a steady stream of IDF losses. It was a remnant of failed Israeli policies for dealing with terrorism from Lebanon. On the other hand, six years after Israel abandoned the Lebanese security strip, Hezbollah launched an unprovoked attack on sovereign Israeli territory, catalyzing the Second Lebanon War. This seemed to show that occupation of Lebanese territory by Israel and Israeli proxies was not the only excuse Hezbollah needed to attack Israel. So the Lebanese security strip is a controversial model, to say the least.
Turning to the Syrian context, to publicly float a proposal like this right now is to suggest a form of Israeli intervention on Syrian soil, even if only by supporting a proxy force of friendly Syrians, at a sensitive time in terms of Israel's relations with both the Assad regime and the revolutionary opposition. True, it is possible that the Salafi groups gradually taking over Syrian villages bordering the Golan will at some point turn on Israel: that, after all, is one of their ultimate objectives in the region. Obviously, the IDF is looking at contingency plans for dealing with this danger.
But the less said about those plans at this point in time, the better for both Israel and moderate elements among the Syrian opposition for whom friction with Israel is the last thing they need.
Q. Israel's Civil Administration for the West Bank revealed last week that over the past 33 years less than one percent of state-owned land in the West Bank had been allotted to Palestinians, and 39 percent to Israeli settlements and related infrastructure. What does this tell us about Israel's attitude toward a two-state solution?
A. This is just one more indication of blatant one-sidedness in the way Israel has developed the settlements at the expense of Palestinian needs, thereby steadily reducing the likelihood that a viable Palestinian state could emerge in the West Bank. I have long believed that the really heavy land issue in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is not illegal use for settlements of land that Palestinians claim is privately owned--claims that are frequently difficult to prove in court. Rather, since in the West Bank as everywhere else in the world most land is public or state-owned, the real question concerns the way the sovereign--which, since 1967, is Israel by virtue of its occupation--uses the land for the public good.
Ignoring for the moment the issue of the legality of settlements in the West Bank, the question becomes: with a large Arab population and a much smaller but constantly growing settler population, how does the Civil Administration, representing the sovereign, allocate public land for use by and for residents? Doesn't proportionality require that state land be allotted to residents based on their proportion of the population, meaning far more to Palestinians than to settlers? Isn't this really the heart and soul of the land issue?
I asked attorney Daniel Seidemann, who specializes in cases involving land and other rights of East Jerusalem Arabs, why this question has never been put to the Israel High Court of Justice. Here is his reply: "I know that suits like this were contemplated in the past, but until now the IDF did not release data or open files to the public that would allow plaintiffs to establish an empirically solid claim, even though intuitively everyone knew this to be the case."
Seidemann recalled filing a suit in the 1990s regarding the use of state land at Har Homa in East Jerusalem to build homes for Israelis but not Palestinians. The High Court rejected the suit because the government of Israel promised to allow Arabs to buy dwellings built at Har Homa and to build homes for Jerusalem Palestinians, too--in other words, because the government promised proportionality. Needless to say, proportionality never materialized: Arabs were not sold apartments at Har Homa and the promised homes for Palestinians in East Jerusalem were never built.
Hopefully, now that official statistics are available, this issue will soon reach the High Court. And hopefully, the High Court will no longer allow itself to be bought off by empty government promises. Incidentally, the Israeli authorities have apparently stopped formally declaring state-land seizures in recent years, perhaps due to recognition that this issue is so blatantly distorted that it could indeed produce a significant court case--if not in Israel then at the International Court of Justice.