Israel puts itself on collision course with Turkey - analyst

Israel approved a deal with Cyprus, Greece and Italy for the EastMed pipeline to transport natural gas to Europe last week, planting itself in front of Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, where a number of countries are vying for rights to drill for hydrocarbon resources, analyst Seth Frantzman said on Sunday.

"The EastMed project puts Israel on a collision course with Turkey," Frantzman, who is employed by the Jerusalem Post, said in a column for Bloomberg. 

Israeli-Turkish relations are "as low as they have been in years" due to Turkey's support for the militant Palestinian group Hamas and its soft-power campaigns in Jerusalem, Frantzman said.

The pipeline agreement seeks to regulate territory in the Mediterranean. Turkey has long objected to Greek and Cypriot territorial waters, saying they infringe on its continental shelf and leave the country with severely reduced claims to the Mediterranean.

In November, Turkey signed a maritime agreement with Libya's Tripoli-based Government of National Accord intended to allow Ankara to explore for natural gas and oil over hundreds of kilometres of Mediterranean seabed from its southeastern coast to northern Libya.

Greece and Cyprus say the deal is illegal and see it as an attempt to block the €6 billion EastMed pipeline, which is expected to cover 10 percent of Europe’s natural gas needs.

Turkey has adopted an increasingly assertive and aggressive approach in response to the exclusion of itself and Northern Cyprus from regional efforts by Cyprus, Greece, Egypt and Israel, as well as the United Arab Emirates and France, to exploit eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbon resources. 

"Turkish naval vessels harassed an Israeli research vessel near Cyprus last December, and Israel’s annual military assessment listed Turkey as a 'challenge' for the first time last year," Frantzman said.

As Turkey flexes military muscles, the United States has said it will conduct joint military drills with the Greek air force around the Mediterranean island of Crete, signaling its backing for Athens on territorial matters.

On July 21, Turkey's navy issued an advisory known as a Navtex, saying it would conduct seismic surveys between Cyprus and Crete.

In a statement last week, the U.S. State Department urged Turkey to cease drilling exploration plans off the Greek islands in the eastern Mediterranean and avoid raising tensions in the region.

Greece has accused Turkey of seeking to encroach on its continental shelf in an escalation of tensions between the two NATO allies.

Turkey's deployment of vessels to search for oil and gas off Cyprus has stoked tensions in the region, prompting the European Union to hit Ankara with sanctions in February. France has been seeking additional measures against Turkey, which the French president said is necessary to stop its violations.

"As Turkey steps up its own surveying and drilling activities, a clash with Israel and Greece appears inevitable," Frantzman said.

Military relations between Israel and Greece have deepened recently, with Greece signing a deal to lease Israeli drones, and Israeli air force jets participating in a major Greek military exercise, he said.

Israel has shifted its role from mostly an observer to a game-changer in the region, Frantzman said.

"But having decided to enter the troubled waters of the Eastern Mediterranean, Israel can no longer prevent its feet from getting wet," he said.