Israel and Turkey hope to prove that oil and water do mix

istanbul | A recent visit to Turkey by Israel’s infrastructure minister has given a renewed push to several projects that Israeli officials believe could have an important regional impact.

The primary reason for Benjamin Ben-Eliezer’s visit was to sign a $360 million deal for a Turkish company to build a power plant in Israel. But the minister also used the visit to discuss the possibility of cooperation on a number of far-reaching energy and water projects.

“These are strategic projects at a very high level,” Pinchas Avivi, Israel’s ambassador to Turkey, said. “Now we are entering into a phase of taking it from a nice idea to something that can be put into effect.”

One proposed plan is the costruction of a pipeline to bring water from Turkey to Israel. Last year Israel signed a 20-year deal to import drinking water from a plant on Turkey’s Manavgat River.

The original idea was to ship the water to Israel using large tankers, but that proved prohibitively expensive. Instead, Israeli officials are suggesting a pipeline of plastic tubing that would be partially submerged in the Mediterranean Sea. Turkey is currently building a similar pipeline to bring water from its southern mainland to northern Cyprus.

Israeli officials have said the pipeline could be extended to water-poor Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, giving the project a role in improving regional stability and possibly attracting foreign aid for its construction.

Another idea that was discussed, according to Israeli officials, is a proposal to use Israel as a transit point for oil arriving in Turkey via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline (BTC). That’s a $4 billion, 1,093-mile project that will bring Caspian Sea oil and natural gas to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast from Azerbaijan via Georgia.

The BTC ends at the Turkish port of Ceyhan, but now attention is being turned to how the pipeline could benefit Israel, both as a source of energy supplies and by creating an opportunity for Israel to become a player in getting BTC oil to thirsty markets in Asia.

Israel’s location and small size may turn out to be a strategic advantage. Since the largest oil tankers can’t sail through the Suez Canal, oil pumped at Ceyhan and headed to Asia would have to make a lengthy trip around Africa. Pumping is expected to begin later this year.

One alternative under discussion is to transport the oil across Israel from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, where it would be loaded onto tankers heading for Asia.

“This definitely will create more opportunities,” said Brenda Shaffer, a professor of Asian studies and political science at Haifa University. “There’s more oil flowing into the Mediterranean only a day’s boat ride from here. There’s growing demand in Asia. If Israel is clever about it, it could market this not only commercially but also politically in a way that could improve regional security and stability.”

For Turkey, which has few energy supplies of its own, the pipeline is the first step in its effort to become a major energy player, not as a producer but as a transit point. As countries look to diversify their energy sources, Turkey hopes to establish itself as a kind of energy supermarket, betting that controlling oil and gas routes will turn out to be as strategically valuable as producing the stuff.

“Geographically, Turkey is endowed with advantages, so we would like to use those advantages to give Turkey a role as a supplier of energy resources that are located in the east and move those energy resources to the markets. It gives Turkey relevance,” said a senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official involved in energy issues.

Israel’s 158-mile Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline (EAP) could be used to transport the oil from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. Built in 1968, the pipeline originally was designed to ferry oil from the shah’s Iran in the opposite direction, from east to west.

The BTC “builds a strategic alliance that is good for Israel. But now Israel has to complete the task, to use the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline to ship oil to the Red Sea, and from there to the ultimate consumers in the Far East, including Japan,” said Ephraim Sneh, a Labor Party legislator and former Israeli transportation minister.

But Barry Swersky, the Israel-based co-chairman of the oil company Big Sky Canada, which works in Central Asia, said questions remain about whether the shipping and oil worlds would accept Israel as a significant transit point for crude oil.

“Will ships be blacklisted? Will ship owners perceive that they will be blacklisted?” he asked.

Swersky also pointed out that work is being done on the Suez Canal to allow it to accommodate larger tankers, which could take away the EAP’s competitive edge.

Egypt also operates the Sumed pipeline, a Suez Canal bypass that takes mostly Persian Gulf oil to the Mediterranean. The EAP’s edge would be further eroded if Egypt reverses the flow on the Sumed.

More significant, Swersky said, is the question of how increased oil-tanker traffic would impact the environmentally sensitive Gulf of Aqaba.

“I’m not sure if there’s serious thinking about up and turning a holiday resort into a serious oil port,” he said. “There should be a serious examination while there is time.’

Despite the absence of any announced deals, the company that runs the EAP recently made a significant upgrade on the pipeline that allows for the flow to be reversed, making it possible to pump oil from Ashkelon to Eilat.

Meanwhile, Mani Shankar Aiyar, India’s minister of petroleum and natural gas, recently suggested that Azeri oil could be delivered to his country via Israel.