Will Gaza Gas Serve as Israel's Trojan Horse?

03/16/2015 11:32 am ET | Updated May 16, 2015

In a perplexing about-face, there has been a revival of efforts to permit the exploration of Gaza Marine, the gas reserves located off the coast of Gaza. The development of this gas field is inarguably advantageous, as it could allow Palestinians to create an independent and competitive energy sector. Yet this push for exploration must be seen within its wider context, as part of a quid pro quo arrangement which reinforces Israel's continuing colonization of Palestinian resources.

Over the past few years, Israel has entered into Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with both Palestinian and Jordanian counterparts to export gas from its reserves located in the Eastern Mediterranean basin. Pushed forward surreptitiously, these negotiations were initially met with little public protest. But as news of the deals broke out, Palestinians and Jordanians began mobilizing against normalization with Israel through these gas deals, given the persistence of the occupation. Potentially in response to such public pressure, reports recently emerged which cast doubt about the future of Israel's first gas deal with the Palestinian Power Generation Company (PPGC).

This uncertainty spotlights the mounting popular challenge to the regional gas deals that the Quartet and the State Department have been trying to assemble as part of a wider geopolitical puzzle. It is also why the Palestinian gas fields off the coast of Gaza have suddenly re-entered the picture.

Palestinian authorities have been pursuing the development of the Gaza Marine field since its discovery in 1999 to enhance the Palestinian economy and its overall energy security. Despite their persistent efforts, Israel had actively prevented such an outcome. Now, however, in order to counter public protest, Israel has turned to Gaza Marine, hoping to paint the Israeli-Jordanian and the Israeli-Palestinian gas deals with a modicum of acceptability.

American and Israeli officials have become vocal about the benefits of exploring Gaza Marine, as have individuals close to the negotiations. For example, Ariel Ezrahi, Energy Advisor to the Quartet Representative, underlined the importance of considering "the Palestinian dimension to these deals" in order to lessen the political difficulty faced by parties potentially interested in buying Israeli gas. Selling Palestinian gas alongside Israeli gas would allow the Jordanian and Palestinian regimes to circumvent public opposition. In effect, Gaza Marine has become a strategic asset to Israel, a crucial element of its plans to monetize its gas resources.

The negotiations go as follows: Israel allows Gaza to explore and produce its own gas, and even potentially to export this gas to the West Bank and to Jordan. As a quid pro quo for Israel permitting the exploration of Gaza Marine, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority (PA) will have to commit to buying a certain volume of Israeli gas. This way, Jordan and the PA can soothe the protesting public by claiming that they have pushed forward and enabled the exploration of Gaza Marine, to the obvious benefit of the Palestinians. Israel, in turn, will find a ready and committed market for its gas.

Israel also benefits in other ways. By allowing production from Gaza Marine, an additional gas supplier may be able to enter the Israeli gas market. This would appease regulators who have placed obstacles in the development of Israel's gas resources, given that they are currently monopolized by the consortium composed of Israeli firm Delek Group Ltd. and Houston-based Noble Energy, key shareholders in Israel's gas sector.

The development of Gaza Marine would undoubtedly be a positive step. However, the exploration of Palestinian gas reserves must not be permitted solely in return for Israel securing gas purchase agreements with neighboring countries. Such hijacking of the Palestinian gas reserves merely reinforces Israel's control of Palestinian resources, and its manipulation of these resources to further its own interests. Jordan and the Palestinians must support the development of Gaza Marine as a simple assertion of Palestinian sovereignty over their own resources, without being obligated to offer anything in return.

Secondly, there is a vast difference in the volume of the Israeli reserves, namely Leviathan, and Gaza Marine. Palestinian gas will run out long before exports from Leviathan even begin receding. By forcing neighboring countries to commit to buying Israeli gas in return for the exploration of Gaza Marine, Israel is simply creating the foundation for an eventual dependency on Israeli gas as Palestinian gas runs out.

The words of Israel's Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom paint this future. "Israel is becoming an energy superpower, which will supply the energy needs of its neighbors and strengthen its standing as a central source of energy supply in the region, and I welcome it." This carries with it severe implications for both the Jordanians and the Palestinians, as their energy security becomes dependent on Israel even as it maintains its occupation.

The real problem underlying these developments is the notion that an economic peace can pave the way for a political settlement -- one that would dispense with the fulfilment of universally recognized rights. This approach has shaped the efforts of the State Department and the Quartet as they push towards integrating Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinians (and eventually even countries farther afield such as Egypt, Cyprus, and Turkey) into a single energy market.

In promoting the "Palestinian dimension" to further Israeli interests, Ezrahi said, "I'm an energy person, not a politician, so I don't talk about a vision for peace." But energy deals and regional cooperation cannot viably be separated from the political reality, just like an economic peace cannot favorably exist outside of a just and lasting political settlement.

Making Jordan and the Palestinians dependent on Israel as it becomes the regional energy "superpower" greatly exacerbates the power imbalance that lies at the heart of this conflict. Jordanian and Palestinian authorities should pay attention to the public opposition, and understand that any economic deal must be struck in the service of Palestinian rights, not in an effort to circumvent them. Only once these rights are realized can economic integration contribute to a lasting peace.