ATHENS: Like it or not, Israel’s discovery of promising gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean has forced friends and foes in the area to take a good look at their own energy strategies, analysts say.
Greece, which treated the Israeli foreign minister to a three-day official visit this past week, is one of several regional players planning their next move.
The fields, chief among them the Leviathan cache found last year and believed to hold some 450 billion cubic meters of gas, have already brought one diplomatic breakthrough with Israel and Cyprus defining their maritime borders.
"The Leviathan find is speeding up developments. The deck has been reshuffled," Thanos Dokos, director-general at the Hellenic foundation for European and foreign policy (Eliamep), told AFP.
But he noted that "tough pairings arise" among the five countries involved — Israel, Cyprus, Turkey, Lebanon and Greece.
The Israeli deal with Cyprus in December to facilitate future exploration has already angered Turkey — which does not recognize the Greek Cypriot government — while Lebanon questions Israel’s maritime rights in the area.
Months earlier, Turkey and Israel had also locked horns over a raid by Israeli naval commandos that killed nine Turkish activists on a flotilla of aid ships trying to breach the Gaza Strip blockade.
Israel still does not have officially delineated maritime borders with Lebanon.
Turkey has no relations with the Greek Cypriot government, recognizing only the breakaway Turkish Cypriot authorities in the island’s north — the legacy of a Turkish invasion that followed an attempted Greek-backed coup three decades ago.
Cyprus has signed delineation agreements with Egypt and Lebanon who agreed to mutually exploit hydrocarbon deposits that criss-cross their boundaries.
Greece, a close ally of Cyprus, currently has no stake in the contested area and has not set out exploration boundaries with any of its neighbours.
But it stands to gain as a potential conduit to the European continent and its relations with Israel have drastically improved in recent months.
The debt-wracked Greek economy nearly went bankrupt last year and Athens badly needs investment to kick off a persistent recession that has brought thousands of layoffs.
And the European Union, which has suffered repeated gas supply scares owing to disputes between Russia and Ukraine, is also eyeing developments with interest.
"Europe’s gas import requirements are expected to increase from 60 percent currently to 90 percent by 2025," says energy analyst Theodore Tsakiris, a policy director at the Hellenic centre for European studies (Ekem).
After Cyprus’ breakthrough with Israel, calls are increasing in Greece for exploration of suspected gas and oil fields in Greek territory.
"There is a feeling that we have treasure lying off Crete," says Tsakiris.
"The problem is that we have no idea what lies off Crete."
The Greek government has fueled speculation by speeding up plans to create a state regulator on hydrocarbon exploration by next year.
Last month, the Greek deputy energy minister said preliminary exploration has already located hydrocarbon resources in Kavala and Epanomi in northeastern Greece, Katakolo in the western Peloponnese, the Ionian Sea and the Libyan Sea south of the island of Crete.
For now, Athens has sought to dampen expectations.
"We have no petrol, or at any rate, we have found hardly any so far," Prime Minister George Papandreou told reporters in 2009.
"Talk of Greece turning into Qatar is untrue," Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas said on Monday.
The Aegean is also rumored to hold energy reserves but the prospect of Greece reaching an exploration deal with Turkey is minimal.
The two countries have deep disputes over Aegean airspace and the local seabed and Greek governments have traditionally faced a hostile reception at home to any perceived concessions to Ankara.
When Papandreou visited Turkey last week and held closed-door talks
with his counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, opposition parties and several media swiftly accused him of conducting "secret diplomacy" on the issue with Ankara.
The Greek foreign ministry this week confirmed talks with "neighboring countries" which do "not need to be done in public."
The ministry said talks were "in progress" with Libya and Egypt while "exploratory contacts" are held with Turkey.
"The delineation of maritime zones … is a central and strategic political goal of both this government and the previous (Conservative) government," Droutsas told Real radio.
"We are in contact with neighboring countries and are conducting these talks. But all this does not need to be done in public," the minister said.