Behind Michael Flynn’s Turkish Lobbying Controversy, An Israeli Gas Pipeline
TRNN Correspondent Shir Hever highlights what may have driven ex-National Security Advisor’s Michael Flynn controversial lobbying work tied to Turkey: an unknown Israeli natural gas company seeking a Turkish pipeline.
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté.
We have covered various aspects of alleged connections between senior Trump Administration officials, and the Russian government, and how strong these connections really are. Michael Flynn was forced out as National Security Advisor, after he lied about his talks with the Russian Ambassador. But Flynn’s ties with Turkey have not gotten as much attention. Flynn recently filed papers acknowledging he worked as a foreign agent on behalf of the Turkish government. Flynn was paid more than $500,000 while advising Trump’s campaign.
The White House says Trump was unaware; a claim Flynn’s team rejects. Flynn’s connection to Turkey also reveals much about the role of natural gas in the political webs of the Middle East. And joining us to discuss is Shir Hever, Real News Correspondent in Germany, Shir, welcome.
SHIR HEVER: Thanks for having me, Aaron.
AARON MATÉ: So, okay, the Flynn controversy around Turkey has been that he was paid by a firm owned by a Turkish-American businessman, to basically help lobby against Fethullah Gülen, this Turkish cleric who’s living in exile in the U.S. and who Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan accuses of basically being behind a coup attempt. But you’re looking at now Flynn’s work on behalf of an Israeli company linked to natural gas, is that correct?
SHIR HEVER: Yes. Actually, this is what the Dutch company Inovo, who is owned by this Turkish-American businessman, is claiming — that in fact, they were not hired by… they did not hire Flynn in order to get him to release Fethullah Gülen, but in order to promote the interests of an Israeli gas company.
AARON MATÉ: But it is true that Flynn did write an op-ed denouncing Gülen, which would then lend credence to this claim that he was hired by a Turkish national for that purpose.
SHIR HEVER: This may be an additional purpose of his work in Turkey, and it’s not completely clear whose interest he would be promoting. What I think is interesting, is that Flynn’s very strong position on Iran. He has very anti-Iran sentiments. It actually plays right into the interests of the Israeli natural gas companies, who are trying to sell their natural gas to Turkey.
And Iran is also an exporter of natural gas, but more importantly, Iran is perceived, at least by the Israeli natural gas companies, as somehow supporting the Hamas Party in the Gaza Strip; and therefore, part of the policy of Erdogan towards Israel is very much related to the siege on the Gaza Strip, and this ties directly to the natural gas resource as well.
AARON MATÉ: So, are you suggesting that Flynn’s anti-Iran stance is linked to his work on behalf of an Israeli natural gas company?
SHIR HEVER: I don’t know what caused his anti-Iran stance. It could also be that an Israeli gas company decided to hire him rather than somebody else, because they found his views on Iran helpful. But the main issue is that there is an obstacle for the Israeli natural gas sector, because of the way that natural gas technology is developed. And there are new natural gas fields that are being revealed and developed the whole time. Gas prices are declining, and the Israeli gas industry is very anxious to find customers.
AARON MATÉ: Ok, so what do we know then, about what Flynn was hired to do on their behalf, if anything?
SHIR HEVER: We know very little. I think what we know more, is about what are the policies of President Erdogan of Turkey, and now because Flynn was doing both at the same time; he was lobbying the Turkish government and working with the Trump campaign team. Then there was the accusation against the Inovo Company saying; well you may have decided to hire Flynn in order to have some kind of influence over the U.S. government, on behalf of the Turkish administration.
So, this makes him a kind of double lobbyist, working for both sides. The defense that Inovo is now saying to the FBI investigation is — how could we have known that Trump would win the election? At the time, polls were giving Hillary Clinton an 80% chance of success. But I think, from an economic point of view, even if they put this amount of money for the 20% chance that Trump will become the President, it’s a pretty good investment.
AARON MATÉ: Okay, so help set the geopolitical scene here for us. This story that you’re looking at has to do with Israeli natural gas interests. How do those interests impact Israeli relations with the U.S., with Turkey, and with, what you mentioned before, Iran? What is happening here geopolitically when it comes to natural gas?
SHIR HEVER: Well, like I said, natural gas is a rapidly developing technology. So, what appeared to be a very expensive and difficult to obtain energy source, is now becoming a very major source of energy for the Middle East, or the entire Mediterranean region. It used to be monopolized mainly by Qatar in the south, and Russia in the north. Russia supplies natural gas to Turkey, for example.
And then there was a discovery by the British company, British Gas, of natural gas offshore of Gaza. And they wanted to develop it as way back as 2000, so 17 years ago, and this was not allowed by the Israeli government — as part of their siege on Gaza, they did not allow the Palestinians to develop the natural gas. Then nine years later, 2009 the Israeli natural gas companies make a massive discovery of natural gas offshore of Haifa, in Israel’s territorial waters. And they rush to try to develop this gas as fast as they can, and try to export it.
But this causes a very serious internal debate within Israel, because the taxes are too low, and it seems that only a very small group of people are set to benefit from the natural gas, while the general Israeli public will not gain anything. So, there are political protests and so on, and these natural gas companies turn out to be extremely political.
That’s a very interesting angle, because they’re not just out there for the money, but they’re out there to exploit the political system in Israel; and the hatred of Arabs basically, in order to try to get popular support for exploiting the gas, even if taxes remain very low.
What they say basically is, that unless the government gives them the right to exploit the gas for very low taxes, they will not exploit the gas. They will not use it, because it’s not worthwhile. Then Israel will have to import natural gas from its enemies, meaning Egypt. But here’s the problem, Egypt is not an enemy of Israel; actually, the two countries have a peace treaty and they trade with each other.
So, this is a kind of argument that says if you don’t allow these companies to make a lot of profit, then you’re an Arab-lover. Now, Inovo is saying that the natural gas company–
AARON MATÉ: And Inovo is this company that hired Flynn, just to clarify?
SHIR HEVER: Yes, the Dutch company owned by a Turkish-American businessman. They’re saying it was an Israeli natural gas company that hired us. But the FBI is not telling us which company. And the Israeli media which is covering this is just saying, “An Israeli company”. But there are only three large gas-drilling companies in Israel, which are even capable of an international deal of this scale. And they’re called Ovnow(?), Isramco and Delek. And the fourth company that is also drilling offshore of Israel is actually an American company; it’s Texas based and it’s called Noble Energy.
Noble Energy is also related to the regional politics, and it brings the U.S. into the story, because Noble Energy is one of the companies that is actually tied to the Trump Administration. So, here we have another tangent that links the Trump Administration to natural gas coming from Israel. And George Papadopoulos who’s Energy Security Advisor appointed by Trump, well, he used to work for the Hudson Institute, as the Hudson Institute gave a prize to the CEO of Nobel Energy, and also put pressure on the Israeli government to develop the natural gas, and to export it as fast as possible.
So, here we see another angle to the story. What I think is… And you asked me how this ties to Iran, how this ties to the geopolitics of the region? No country will want to buy the natural gas from Israel, if they believe the price is going to drop very soon, after they sign a contract. You don’t want to buy a product when you expect this product’s value to drop, if you just wait a little bit. When will the price of natural gas drop? When the Palestinians in Gaza will be allowed to develop their own natural gas; and then they will compete. And the price can only go down.
And since President Erdogan of Turkey, really put a lot of pressure on Israel, and tried to use his influence to end the siege on Gaza. Which would mean allowing the Palestinians to develop their gas field. He was exactly in the position that he doesn’t have any interest to sign a gas deal with Israel. But the Israeli companies are desperate, they need customers, because they planned on selling it to Egypt, and Egypt has just made a big discovery of natural gas, and they’re not interested in Israeli natural gas.
AARON MATÉ: Do you think Israel will actually ever allow Palestinians to develop their own natural gas resources?
SHIR HEVER: Obviously, the Israeli government is never going to do this of their own accord. It’s only a question of international pressure. And as soon as the international pressure will be strong enough, they will allow it. And actually, now the Israeli Minister of Transportation is promoting this kind of project to build a port/airport on an artificial island offshore of Gaza, in order to sort of allow the siege of Gaza to become a bit more mild, and to reduce the level of responsibility of the Israeli government to what’s going on in Gaza. To the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding there.
And part of that deal could, of course, include developing the natural gas. The purpose of this, is to get more international legitimacy, and this minister is only going to succeed in its project if there will be international pressure on Israel to actually alleviate the siege.
AARON MATÉ: Which has been pretty absent for many years, as Israel has not allowed much development in Gaza, and in fact, hindered development. But as we wrap, looking at the Flynn investigation, as it goes forward, certainly he’s going to continue to get a lot of scrutiny for his alleged Russia ties.
When it comes to this story, this Turkish natural gas connection, what are you looking for when it comes to questions you want to see answered, as Flynn’s foreign ties receive more and more attention? Quickly.
SHIR HEVER: Yeah, I think we need to know: which company has hired Inovo to hire Flynn on their behalf? Why they thought they need a security expert, a former general, to do a job, which is basically an economic job? So, this is a very important angle to this — why is this story about energy, turning to be a story about military officers?
And I think it’s also interesting to see — how was the Trump Administration considering the whole issue of natural gas, when the Trump energy policy seems to hinge mainly on coal? Natural gas was more associated with the Hillary Clinton campaign. And so, she considered it to be a kind of transition fuel towards renewable energy, and this is a very controversial issue, because natural gas is not really a transition fuel.
But this sheds a certain light on everything, and also the appointment of George Papadopoulos, that actually the interests here were not to develop a kind of energy source, but to form political ties for the United States, and for Israel; and in a kind of competition over regional dominance against Russia.
AARON MATÉ: Shir Hever, Real News correspondent in Germany — thanks very much for joining us today.
SHIR HEVER: Thanks for having me.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.