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April 6, 2022 4:52 pm

As West Looks to Wean Off Russian Energy, Israel Sees Opportunity in Mediterranean

avatar by Sharon Wrobel

The production platform of Leviathan natural gas field is seen in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Haifa, northern Israel June 9, 2021. Picture taken June 9, 2021. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine pressuring western countries to curtail their dependence on Moscow’s gas and oil, Israel is looking to build bridges for regional energy cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean, in the hopes of offering alternative supplies.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, during a diplomatic visit to Athens on Tuesday, expressed the country’s commitment to cooperation on natural gas pipeline projects with Greece and Cyprus, as he asserted that the Ukraine conflict “stands to change the structure of the European and Middle Eastern energy market” — offering opportunities in the process.

“The Russian invasion to Ukraine may increase Europe’s interest in the east Mediterranean natural gas,” Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told The Algemeiner. He cautioned that the region has “modest quantities” in comparison to European demand, but that it could still contribute toward a gradual transition away from Russian supply.

Eran believes the region could help the US meet the commitment made by US President Joe Biden to provide at least 15 billion cubic meters more liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe this year, amid uncertainties about delivery from its main supplier in Moscow.

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The European Commission last month cited Israel as a potential partner to diversify supplies of gas through pipelines or through LNG, as it seeks to to cut its dependency on Russian gas by two-thirds this year.

“One major problem in doing it rapidly is conveying the gas to Europe, as the only currently available way is through LNG installations off the coast of Egypt, and it involves capacity limitations,” said Eran, who has served as Israel’s ambassador to Jordan and the European Union. “The major effort, including talks with European partners such as Greece, can expedite the process of finding quick solutions to technical issues.”

During the trilateral meeting in Athens, Ioannis Kasoulides, the Foreign Minister of Cyprus, pledged that the three allies are committed to advancing energy projects — including the Euro-Asia interconnector, a project to build the world’s longest and deepest underwater power cable, to bridge the European electrical grid from Greece to Cyprus, and Israel.

“Energy is a very tricky subject because for the past ten years, Israel, Greece and Cyprus have been talking about the prospect of energy cooperation. But all that talk has amounted to very little in terms of hard, real physical infrastructure projects,” Gabriel Mitchell, an energy expert and the director of undergraduate studies at the University of Notre Dame at Tantur in Jerusalem, told The Algemeiner. “We are seeing at the very least the possibility that one of those projects, the Euro-Asia interconnector, will be realized.”

Mitchell, who formerly researched energy security at the Mitvim Institute think tank, suggested it was only a matter weeks or months before Israel officially signs off on the interconnector, as it is a European project of common interest that also enjoys support from the US.

A prospect with longer odds is the is the EastMed subsea pipeline, aimed at supplying Europe (excluding Turkey) with natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean via Cyprus. Earlier this year, the Biden administration withdrew its support for the $6 billion pipeline, jeopardizing its financing and the efforts so far of Israel, Greece and Cyprus.

Eran noted that even as the conflict in Ukraine has revived debate about the EastMed pipeline, “it may prove hard to implement technically and financially.”

“It certainly does not provide any immediate answer to the wish to de-couple Europe from Russia,” he added.

Lapid’s discussion with his Greek and Cypriot counterparts comes after Israeli senior officials, including President Isaac Herzog, met with officials in Turkey, with the two countries seeking to mend strained ties. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has rekindled a long-sought interest in energy cooperation, to transfer Israeli natural gas to Turkey and from there to Europe.

“There has been a tremendous emphasis and spotlight on Israel’s relationship with Turkey, while at the same time there is a parallel track, primarily conducted by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Lapid, to engage with leadership around the region that are not Turkey — specifically Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, for example, in the recent Negev summit,” Mitchell said.

“All these kinds of meetings in the region are in some way, even if indirectly, touching upon that engagement between Israel and Turkey and more broadly, the Ukraine-Russian conflict and how it’s impacting and affecting the region, both in terms of energy security, but also other security issues.”

Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu downplayed a potential gas pipeline project between Turkey and Israel advancing in the short term. Despite the bilateral talks, Mitchell said, there are still major roadblocks, both geopolitical and commercial.

“I’m not even sure whether any of the pipeline projects that are being proposed right now are feasible or realistic,” he said. “At the very least, the talks are a demonstration that Israel wants to cooperate with European countries and is cognizant of Europe’s current struggles of reducing its dependence on Russian oil and natural gas.”

It may be more likely that Europe will decide to continue to buy Israeli and Egyptian LNG, he added, together with a number of more modest initiatives than a pipeline that would take years to build and operate.

“By the time it’s constructed, it’s very difficult to predict what the future of the energy market and Europe-Russia relations will look like,” Mitchell explained. “So even though we are having a very difficult energy situation right now, it’s the kind of investment that is very difficult to get international companies on board, due to the degree of economic and geopolitical uncertainty.”

In the short-term, Israel could rethink current policies about domestic natural gas consumption, and explore ways to export more of the country’s natural gas other than via pipeline, he suggested.

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