In recent years, resource disputes in the South China Sea have made headlines across the world. But another body of water -- the Mediterranean -- is rapidly becoming as volatile as its eastern cousin. Exploratory drilling near the coasts of Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey has unearthed vast reserves of natural gas. Competition over the rights to tap those resources is compounding existing tensions over sovereignty and maritime borders. Without more active engagement by outside powers, these disagreements will be difficult to resolve.
Israel stands to be the main beneficiary of the eastern Mediterranean’s bounty, due mainly to the geographic distribution of recent discoveries. In 2009 and 2010, a pair of U.S.-Israeli consortiums exploring the seabed near Haifa discovered the Tamar and Leviathan fields, which collectively hold an estimated 26 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas. The timing of these discoveries was opportune. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, Israel has suffered frequent supply interruptions and the eventual termination of its contract with Egypt, which had previously provided 40 percent of the gas Israel consumed, at below-market rates. The Tamar and Leviathan fields, once developed, could satisfy Israel’s electricity needs for the next 30 years and even allow it to become a net energy exporter.
Lebanon -- with whom Israel has never settled its maritime boundary -- has declared that a portion of the Leviathan field falls into a 330-square-mile area that both countries claim as part of their protected economic zones. This dispute, along with Hezbollah’s threat to attack Israeli gas platforms, has increased the burden on Israel’s small navy. Until recently, the Israeli navy’s primary strategic focus was on coastal defense and maintaining a blockade of Gaza. To equip the fleet for the protection of offshore gas rigs, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz have approved a plan to procure four new warships. Israel has also worked to expand political, military, and economic cooperation with other local