Major discoveries of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean in recent years have added, with their serious political and security implications, to tension and instability of the volatile region. The Leviathan, the largest of the fields, is estimated to hold as much as 3.5 billion cubic meters (BCM), which is 673 times more than Israel consumed in 2011, or 8 times more than the whole European Union used in 2012. In an ideal scenario, Israel could become a significant gas exporter until the end of the decade, while Turkey might enhance its standing as a vital energy transit station and a key regional player. But few things usually work ideally in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Lebanon and Israel are technically still in a state of war as no peace treaty has ever been signed between the two neighbors. Turkey has found itself for decades in a dispute with Cyprus over the status of the northern part of the island. Relations between Israel and Turkey, the key players in the game of regional gas, are strained and mercurial.

Before we move on to examine the decisive Turkish and Israeli positions, let’s have a closer look at a few vital realities.

Abundant gas but only limited options

Even though some fields touch disputed maritime boundaries, specifically Israeli-Lebanese and Cypriot-Turkish, no doubts can be raised whether there will be enough exploitable gas.

An absolute majority of the discovered gas is located within the Israeli exclusive economic zone and can be drilled without constraints (that is why many foreign firms, with U.S. giant Noble Energy in the forefront, have been so active in the area). The relatively minor Mari-B field has been functioning since 2004, while the real boom started with Leviathan coming online earlier in 2013, and Tamar, Tanin, and newly discovered Karish expected to follow soon. Ironically enough, so far there has been too much gas and too few ways to transport it to foreign customers.

According to the Inter-ministerial Tzemach committee, Israel needs only 50% of drilled gas to dramatically increase its energy security. This figure was later modified to 60% by Netanyahu’s new government following public enthusiasm for the greatest energy independence since 1967. Regardless of the precise percentage, it is clear that the sole Israeli market cannot consume such enormous capacities of gas. Therefore, to make the exploitation economically sensible, it desperately needs to find ways to export the valuable commodity. Two alternatives are on the table: building a pipeline or investing into a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant. But Israel´s relations with regional actors constitute a significant obstacle to both of these options. Answering essential strategic questions of where and how will require important moves on the diplomatic chessboard of the region.

First, Israel could built its own LNG terminal near the city of Eilat and then deliver the gas on tankers through the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, or through Gulf of Aqaba and Gulf of Aden to lucrative South-East Asian markets. Nevertheless, construction of such a terminal is an extremely expensive venture and represents an attractive target for a potential terrorist attack.

Secondly, Israel considers a joint pipeline construction with Cyprus and Greece. While such an option might bring a relatively cheap and quick solution, it seriously limits the overall size of final export market as important Asian Markets would be unreachable. Furthermore, cooperation between Israel and Cyprus would gravely infuriate and alienate Turkey, which is strategically more important for Israel than tiny Cyprus.

A third option consists of constructing a pipeline to Jordan, where it could connect to the existing infrastructure and transport Israeli gas further to consumers in the region. Given the unpleasant political realities and general hostility towards Israel, added with vulnerability of an on-surface pipeline, the latter possibility is the least likely one.

And then there is the Turkish option. Notwithstanding prevailing differences between the two key regional actors, close cooperation with Turkey remains both strategically and economically very attractive for Israeli policy makers. Let’s examine prerequisites for, and implications of, a potential Turkish-Israeli cooperation in more detail.

Who holds the trumps?

Turkey, a country with no direct access to the discovered fields but with great political leverage and even greater motivation, will inevitably be the decisive player in the unfolding game of regional gas. A potential successful collaboration with Israel and other countries in the region, notably Cyprus and Greece, could well redraw the political map of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey has a serious shortage of its own energy resources. Ankara has to import over 90% of its total oil consumption, and almost 100% of its rapidly growing natural gas needs. Having Russia and Iran as the major providers, Turkey is eager to diversify its portfolio of suppliers. But Turkish major ambition derives from its geopolitically strategic position; it is keen to become a true energy hub, a center which connects commodity-rich East and energy-hungry West. This clearly definable interest – to participate in transportation of gas from the Eastern Mediterranean – together with Turkey´s political regional ambitions, put the country into an uneasy role and shrew the regional gas exploitation in uncertainty.

To maintain its rising power momentum, Ankara simply needs to demonstrate that it is capable of promoting its vital interests in the region. Previously it strongly opposed any exploitation until diplomatic disputes with Israel and notably Cyprus will have been solved. But so far, Turkish opposition seems to have made very little impact. Israel’s largest field has come online earlier in 2013, meanwhile Cyprus has announced its final decision to individually construct a LNG plant and start exporting its gas around 2020. Being left out of the game when all cards are had been played would be a major blow not only to Turkey´s strategic long-term interests but also to its reputation.

Bound by NATO membership and facing the EU Member Cyprus and U.S. ally Israel, diplomacy remains the only instrument at Turks’ disposal. The normalization of Turkish relations with Israel in March 2013 might have been the first step towards future cooperation in gas exportation.

Divided by differences but united by gas

A stable, long-term partnership in gas exportation (or even exploitation) between Israel and Turkey would significantly increase security of the region in the medium and in the long-run.

By building a seabed pipeline, Israel could get access to a developed and wide Turkish gas infrastructure which redistributes gas to many markets. Simultaneously, increasing gas volumes flowing through Turkey would further strengthen Ankara’s ambition to become a hub. Although surrounding Muslim countries might not welcome such partnership, Turkey could easily satisfy all anti-Israeli sentiments by an occasional criticism of the Jewish state, and by stressing the “pure economic nature” of the cooperation.

Construction and administration of a pipeline would require regular joint high-level consultations and meetings. These would inevitably lead the two regional powers to also discuss the long-standing regional issues such as the status of Palestine, post-Arab spring development, armament, and other key security questions. Connected by a pipeline, Turkey and Israel could gradually find themselves tightened closer to each other than ever before.

Should, on the other hand, Turkey fail to attract Israel (or Cyprus, which is extremely unlikely) to cooperation and thus remain outside of the Eastern Mediterranean gas bonanza, the most probable result would be an increase in tension in the region.

True, Turkey would not be willing to resort to military means to deter any Israeli or Cypriot exploitation. But if Turkey would openly declare that it is not willing to tolerate any unilateral Cypriot action, the tiny island country with 30,000 Turkish soldiers stationed on its northern part would find itself in a very precarious position. Israel would then remain greatly isolated, with a lot of gas but only a small market and with no Turkish or Cypriot export routes.

In such a scenario, strained relations would widen gaps between individual states in the region. Israel would stand alone, especially if Palestine and perhaps Lebanon would succeed in getting closer to Turkey in their common cause of opposing any drilling until being granted a stake at the profitable venture.

The vast gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean bring many hopes for establishing greater regional cooperation, opening of a dialogue on the most burning issues, and strengthening of Israeli security. But because diplomatic relations are hardly ideal in the Eastern Mediterranean, a huge and sustaining effort by the two key actors Israel and Turkey is necessary. Otherwise, the celebrated gas discoveries might quickly become a curse.