The Land of Gas and Honey

Israel's giant new natural gas find will transform the Middle East -- and add more fuel to an already combustible region.

Mother Nature's distribution of oil and gas resources around the world suggests she has a mischievous sense of humor. In the Persian Gulf, South China Sea, and Caspian Sea, large fields lie in disputed zones between unfriendly neighbors.

Now we must add another hot spot to that list. New, giant, natural gas finds promise to transform the energy security and economy of Israel and, perhaps, its neighbors. But these treasures could hardly have been better placed to stir up trouble, complicating three of the world's most intractable conflicts: between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Lebanon, and Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The recent sharp deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations makes disputes over gas even more fraught with danger.

Golda Meir, the feisty, cantankerous, and quotable fourth Israeli prime minister, used to complain that Moses led the Israelites through the desert for 40 years to bring them to the only place in the Middle East without oil. In 2000, after Britain's BG had discovered significant volumes of gas at Gaza Marine, she was proved at least half-wrong when U.S. exploration company Noble Energy found a similar-sized field, Mari-B, in Israeli waters.

In 2009, though, Noble put these efforts completely into the shade. Some bold and creative geological thinking led it to find 8.5 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of gas in deep water at Tamar, the world's largest discovery that year. In late 2010, Noble uncovered an even larger field, aptly named Leviathan, containing 16 Tcf. These fields alone could meet U.S. gas demand for an entire year.

The Levant Basin, the geological area containing Tamar and Leviathan, spans not only Israel's offshore but also that of Lebanon, Cyprus, and Syria. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates it could contain 120 Tcf of gas, equivalent to almost half of U.S. reserves. Given that Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian territories between them have a population of less than 17 million, that's potentially a huge windfall.

The gas, therefore, suddenly eliminates one of Israel's key strategic and economic weaknesses: its lack of indigenous energy resources. Tamar alone could supply all of Israel's power plants for more than 20 years. And the discoveries are very timely, because Mari-B will be depleted by 2013 and because of the sudden insecurity of Egyptian gas imports.

Israel receives about 40 percent of its gas consumption from Egypt, though the deal is deeply unpopular there, with ex-president Hosni Mubarak and his cronies accused of underpricing the gas and profiting corruptly from sales. The pipeline through the volatile Sinai has been attacked five times this year, cutting supplies and forcing Israel to raise electricity prices by almost 10 percent in August to cover the increased costs of burning oil.

Replicating Israel's success would likewise transform the prospects of energy-poor Lebanon and Cyprus. Cyprus is still reeling from the accidental destruction of its main power station, blown up in July by confiscated Iranian munitions stored with remarkable carelessness next to it.

Noble has been given the green light by the U.S. Embassy in Nicosia to go ahead with drilling in Cypriot waters adjacent to Leviathan. In contrast, Lebanon and Syria have been painfully slow to realize their opportunity. Major oil companies had looked at the area as early as 2001, yet Lebanon's fractious parliament only passed an oil law in 2010 after enviously eyeing Israel's success. Syria had planned to award exploration blocks this year, but this seems unlikely as long as the uprising against the Assad regime continues.

Meanwhile, the unfortunate people of Gaza, whose field arguably started the whole rush, suffer from daily power cuts. Long negotiations to develop their gas predictably went nowhere because the Israelis had no intention of giving the Palestinian Authority an additional source of revenue, especially after Hamas's 2007 takeover of the strip.

The Israelis now have an abundance of riches. They could export gas to Jordan, whose economy is struggling under the burden of expensive oil. The Jordanians, though, might play them off against Iraq, a more politically palatable supplier that will also have excess gas to sell within a few years.

Other than that, without any friends in the region, the Israelis will have to look west for markets. They could have built a pipeline through Cyprus and on to Turkey and mainland Europe. But, with impeccable timing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has escalated a war of rhetoric against Turkey, as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman reportedly threatened with his characteristic finesse to arm the Kurdish PKK group.

Instead, Israel will probably require more costly and complicated liquefaction facilities in order to ship the gas by tanker to customers in Southern Europe.

The other problem is the region's territorial disputes. Israel and the Republic of Cyprus -- that's the Greek one -- have delineated their maritime border and have shared economic interests. But the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon is not demarcated, and Lebanon has weakened its position with diplomatic missteps while each side has submitted its own claims. These will be hard to resolve: International courts and arbitration do not apply while the two states have no diplomatic relations, and Israel has not signed the 1994 Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The actual overlapping claims area is surprisingly small, and it seems clear that Tamar and Leviathan lie in Israeli waters. Yet Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to retaliate against Israel's gas installations for any attempt to "steal" Lebanese natural resources. It appears that underwater gas could become another Shebaa Farms issue, a minor territorial claim exploited to perpetuate the Lebanese-Israeli conflict.

The Israelis are probably well capable of defending offshore installations against Lebanese or Palestinian threats, particularly as the wells will be on the seabed beneath 1,600 meters of water. Turkey is an entirely different matter. Turkey, of course, recognizes neither EU member Cyprus, having backed the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus since the 1974 war and partition of the island, nor the Cyprus-Israel accord.

Turkish Cypriot President Dervis Eroglu said in early August that Cyprus's gas (not a molecule of which has yet been discovered) belonged not only to Greek Cypriots but to Turkish Cypriots and Turkey too.

Turkish pressure is likely to push Cyprus deeper into Israel's willing embrace. Solon Kassinis, head of Cyprus's Energy Service, fired back at the Turks, "I expected Turkey to bark, but I don't think they will do anything ... if they want to be considered a country that respects international law." Greece, which has been wooed by Israel following its rupture with the Turks, vowed to defend Greek Cypriot sovereignty.

The most explosive issue, however, is the rupture of Turkish-Israeli relations. Although Turkey has no maritime border with Israel, nor much prospect of sharing in the offshore gas bounty, the Cyprus and Lebanon disputes give it an excellent opening to retaliate for Israeli intransigence over the Gaza-bound flotilla raid and other areas of dispute.

Interviewed by Al Jazeera, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared on Sept. 8, "Turkey will not allow Israel exclusive use of the resources of the Mediterranean Sea" and said he planned to dispatch three frigates to confront Israeli warships. Israeli Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau responded, "Israel can support and secure the rigs that we are going to have in the Mediterranean." But in the current political climate, neither Turkey nor Lebanon wants to give Israel an easy path to riches.

The United States has urged Turkey and Israel to ease tensions, while saying that it viewed the gas discoveries overall as positive. In a few years, if all goes well, some brave soul in Congress might question the irony of a major gas exporter's being the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.

But in the short term, the lure of riches makes conflict resolution more difficult and gives hard-liners on all sides another casus belli. Tamar and Leviathan are unfortunately not the catalyst for regional peace and prosperity, but, rather, more fuel in an already combustible mix.

David Silverman/Getty Images


Dark Clouds in the Rainbow Nation

Punishing a South African youth leader for hate speech doesn't do anything to suppress the anger of a generation.

The pair of proceedings dominating the South African news right now were ostensibly designed to pass judgment on one particular man: Julius Malema, the fiery president of the ruling African National Congress's (ANC) youth league who claims to speak for a growing mass of angry, young, black poor. But the two cases proceeding against Malema -- one a charge of violating South Africa's constitutional ban against hate speech by repeatedly singing an old protest song that glorifies shooting white people, the other an internal party inquiry on violating the ANC's own constitution by "sowing divisions" within its ranks -- are actually putting something much bigger than Malema himself on the stand. South Africa's entire approach to post-apartheid transformation is on trial.

Malema represents a sharp break with South Africa's course over the last 15 years. At 30, he is old enough to remember apartheid -- he often talks of running out of his little house in the poor, hot province of Limpopo in 1993, just after the assassination of freedom fighter Chris Hani, gun in hand, to shoot some whites in retaliation, until he heard that Nelson Mandela was appealing for calm -- but only just old enough. Mostly, he is a product of South Africa after apartheid ended in 1994, and his rhetoric differs vastly in style and substance from that of older leaders who got their political education under apartheid.

Those leaders exude a sense of relief, of satisfaction, over the big battle won; Malema's theme is the work yet to be done. Where Mandela radiated placidity and emphasized peace, Malema has an activist fervor verging on violence. He brags he would kill for the party elders he admires; he arrived at his recent court appearances with a wake of private bodyguards draped in semiautomatic weapons. He brazenly calls the organization he leads, the ANC's youth wing, a "radical and militant" organization and one of his adversaries in the opposition party a "cockroach." Where black leaders fastidiously avoided anti-white rhetoric after 1994 as a nod to reconciliation, Malema rarely fails to attach the word "white" to the evils he inveighs against in his rallies and speeches: he vows to take back farmland stolen by whites, he wants to nationalize white-owned gold and platinum mines. And where South African leaders in the 1990s charted a course of slow, even timid economic transformation to keep foreign investors happy and preserve the country's industrial economy, Malema brashly calls for a radical overhaul of South Africa's economic structures. His mission in life, he told a group of young supporters on Saturday, Sept. 10, is to wage "economic war" against the still-pampered "white minority." South African elites long feared the post-colonial example of Zimbabwe next door. Malema praises Robert Mugabe and traveled to Harare last year to see how Comrade Bob got things done.

Given the new, angrier style of his politics, it's a little ironic that the thing that finally brought Malema to a reckoning was his devotion to an old protest song from the apartheid era. "Dubula Ibhunu" means, in the Zulu language, "Shoot the Boer" -- "Boer" being an old-fashioned nickname for Afrikaners, the descendents of South Africa's early Dutch colonials. "The cowards are scared/these dogs are raping/shoot the Boer," the lyrics go. It was just one of many ardently angry songs composed during the height of apartheid-era oppression. In the past few years, Malema has given it new life by selecting it as a sort of anthem to sing at his rallies.

His flamboyant refusal to stop singing it -- along with the trip to Zimbabwe, the labeling of a political opponent a cockroach (a word redolent of the Rwandan genocide), and a recent bid to destabilize the ruling regime in neighboring Botswana -- has made him dramatically more famous within South Africa, and apparently popular with a large though somewhat ill-defined segment of South African youth. (South Africa doesn't have the kind of constant public-opinion polling the United States does, so it's harder to know exactly who supports whom, but Malema won reelection unanimously this summer at his youth league's annual conference.) His behavior also led the country's ruling elite to wonder whether the young leader they once admired for his energy was going dangerously off the rails. And so this year a group of Afrikaner leaders took him to court for propagating hate speech, which is banned by the South African Constitution. Simultaneously, elders within the ANC informed him they were charging him with violating the party's constitution, dragging him to an internal disciplinary hearing and even considering expelling him from the party.

The outcome of the ANC's disciplinary hearing is expected within days. The "Shoot the Boer" court case was just decided: On Monday, Sept. 12, a Johannesburg judge, Colin Lamont, found Malema guilty of hate speech, rejecting his argument that chanting his favorite song merely paid tribute to a vital piece of anti-apartheid history and prohibiting him and all his followers in the youth league from singing it.

Even legal observers who have little affection for Malema were surprised by the zeal of the judge's written decision. Lamont invoked the African philosophy of ubuntu, or togetherness: In 1994, he wrote, South African society was refounded on a particular and special "morality" of ubuntu. The preservation of this foundational ideal is so important that it trumps even the otherwise-sacred right to free speech. In the new South Africa, "the enemy has become the friend, the brother," Lamont wrote. "This new approach to each other must be fostered."

On his popular blog, South Africa's leading constitutional scholar, Pierre de Vos, called Lamont's reasoning "drastic." Can you really prohibit, he asked, a whole loosely defined bulk of people -- Malema's followers -- from singing a historic protest song in a free country? But the judge's decision contained as much emotional reasoning as it did legal. It reflected the perception that the challenge Malema's style poses to South Africa's post-apartheid identity as a place devoted to nurturing tolerance is itself drastic.

South African elites are hoping a legal slap and the party-expulsion threat will blunt Malema's bravado and take a bit of the wind out of his sails. The ruling party simply must tame him and not "allow him to do the wrong things," President Jacob Zuma explained to a South African news website on Tuesday. But even if Malema comes out of these storms battered personally, the wave of popular sentiment that has been lifting him up may just lift other, similar boats to take his place. For Malema is channeling -- albeit in an extreme, almost campy fashion -- views and moods shared by many in his emerging generation. Elders who work with young South Africans notice a strain of frustration they didn't expected to see in the lucky kids who are getting the chance to grow up without the shackles of apartheid. These so-called "born frees" don't all seem to feel their situation is a blessing, though. "There is a lot of anger going around among segments of black students on South African campuses," Jonathan Jansen, a prominent educator, warned last year in a newspaper column.

This anger isn't so hard to understand. Millions of black South Africans in the cities still live in the same kind of crowded shack ghettos that blacks were forced to live in under apartheid; in the countryside, many still lack access to reliable electricity and water. Income inequality has actually grown in the 17 years since apartheid ended, and that inequality still maps onto race, with the average white South African still earning more than four times the average black one. In the United States, Americans despair at 9 percent unemployment; among youth in South Africa, unemployment tops 50 percent. Every year, tens of thousands of teenagers pass their high-school graduation exams with no prospect of getting a job and entering a life commensurate with their education -- or, maybe even more importantly, reflecting their supposedly improved social status. To many young South Africans, it's an infuriating mystery why having a decent life should still be so hard for so many people so many years after the end of white rule.

Malema's rhetoric implies a simple answer: that black leaders' original gentleness and emphasis on reconciliation and multiculturalism -- ubuntu -- were a mistake, or at the very least are becoming increasingly irrelevant as time goes on and some of the structural problems of post-apartheid society become more exposed. An abstract, new notion of public morality and treating each other nicely should not have been the final goal of the freedom struggle, Malema is telling us. It should have been more dramatic, more visible, and somehow real social change. In the absence of that, the struggle for freedom is not over, and -- by that logic -- the kind of anger expressed in "Shoot the Boer" is still appropriate, even necessary.

Muzzling Malema doesn't address the root causes of the anger he nourishes. His peculiar flamboyance gives the fire more oxygen, but it will probably smolder on without him. Malema didn't appear in court on Monday with his weaponry-festooned bodyguards, but after his guilty sentence was read, some of his fans gathered outside the courtroom anyway and sang "Shoot the Boer," the song they had just technically been prohibited from singing. Nobody stopped them.