Steinitz: Gas development after Israel-Lebanon talks critical for Beirut

Israel’s natural gas and renewable energy innovation has strengthened its ties to countries in Europe and the Middle East.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz speaks during an interview with Reuters in Athens, Greece, January 2, 2020 (photo credit: COSTAS BALTAS / REUTERS)
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz speaks during an interview with Reuters in Athens, Greece, January 2, 2020
(photo credit: COSTAS BALTAS / REUTERS)
The coronavirus pandemic has not stopped Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz from having a major international footprint.
In one week, Steinitz and his Egyptian counterpart established a new international organization dedicated to regional natural-gas developments, the minister spoke with two of his counterparts in the United Arab Emirates for the first time and negotiated the terms for starting maritime border talks with Lebanon, which were officially finalized on Thursday.
“In the coming period we will have negotiations directly mediated by the US, so that once and for all we can sum up the historic dispute over the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon,” Steinitz told The Jerusalem Post. It will be the first direct negotiations between the countries in 30 years.
He expressed hope that the dispute over economic waters and natural gas in the Mediterranean will be resolved within a year and thanked US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker for their efforts to make the negotiations happen.
The issue is important to Israel because “we want to put the problem behind us,” Steinitz said. But for Lebanon, “it’s even more important because they need the gas. It’s critical for their economy.”
Lebanon is not the only case in which gas has been the impetus for major diplomatic developments between Israel and its neighbors.
Israel has long had peace with Egypt, but relations have become considerably warmer as the countries became partners in the energy sector.
Last year, Steinitz and his Egyptian counterpart, Tarek el-Molla, founded the EastMed Gas Forum (EMGF), with Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority joining as founding members.
In late September, member countries established the EMGF as an official international organization, with the EU and US as observers. The forum is considering France’s request to join.
The organization’s official statement upon its founding said it would be willing to welcome any country in the region that shares and respects member states’ interests.
Asked whether Turkey could join the forum despite recent tensions with Greece and Cyprus, Steinitz said: “Turkey first of all needs to say it respects all other partners.”
“In the current situation, in which Turkey is preventing Greece and Cyprus from drilling in their economic waters, and there’s a difficult conflict between them, it’s a little problematic,” he said. “But in the long term, I’d be happy if relations between Turkey and the whole region improve.”
At that point, a request to join the EMGF could be considered, he said, adding that there is no reason to oppose it in principle.
Steinitz said he met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House in 2016, and he negotiated with his Turkish counterpart the possibility of building a pipeline between Israel and Turkey, which never came to fruition.
In January, Steinitz became the first Israeli minister to visit Cairo since the Arab Spring.
Egypt used to be a major gas exporter but has experienced shortages in recent years. The country’s Dolphinus Holdings signed a $15 billion agreement with Israel’s Tamar Partners and Leviathan Partners, which began exporting natural gas to Egypt during Steinitz’s visit.
Steinitz said he and Molla held a joint press conference, and details of the countries’ cooperation in the energy sector were in its official media despite strong anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt.
“This is the first time since the peace treaties 40 years ago that there was cooperation at this level,” he said. “We have a great partnership with Egypt; it’s a real regional alliance.”
Steinitz looked back at the major political battles he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to fight to get the “gas outline” – how proceeds from gas exports would be split between private companies and the state – through the Knesset, with the satisfaction of having been right.
“I remember when I said in 2016, and the gas outline was taken to the Supreme Court, that there is a good chance we will export gas to Europe and Egypt and Jordan,” he said. “People accused me of misleading the court and that it’s impossible. But look, it happened.”
Israeli gas will soon reach the Palestinian Authority, which is constructing a power station in Ramallah, Steinitz said. The Palestinians also have a gas reservoir off the coast of Gaza.
“We are prepared for them to annex it for their own good to have income,” he said. “But the split between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in Gaza has delayed its development for years. As far as Israel is concerned, we’re willing to help.”
Steinitz said he tried to help the Palestinians during conversations with Emirati ministers, suggesting that the UAE invest in their energy sector.
“They need it,” he said. “They want to build their own power stations and not just depend on Israel. We are in favor of it and would like them to have their own electricity and develop this market.”
Steinitz spoke with UAE Energy and Infrastructure Minister Suhail Al Mazrouei and Industry and Advanced Technology Minister Sultan al Jaber and invited them to Israel when the pandemic allows.
The latter was interested in Israeli energytech entrepreneurship, and Steinitz said he sought to encourage Emirati investments.
“In recent years, the Energy Ministry has encouraged the development of start-ups in energy, and we are becoming a powerhouse in these areas, like energy efficiency, solar energy, computerization and cybersecurity for the energy sector, such as for power stations and electric cars,” he said. “[The UAE] is a hi-tech powerhouse in energy, too.”
Any discussion of the intersection of gas and diplomacy has brought Israel closer friends in Europe, as well. The EU, for example, described Israel as an important partner in the area of energy, Steinitz said.
Israel, Greece and Cyprus have signed multiple agreements to work toward the EastMed Pipeline from Israel to Europe, which would be the longest and deepest pipeline in the world. The EU and Poseidon, a French-Greek company, invested €100 million in the pipeline and found it was technologically possible to build.
Steinitz expressed hope that more countries will invest in the project.
In addition, Israel, Greece and Cyprus signed an initial agreement to connect an “interconnector” for Europe to provide electricity to Israel.
Steinitz set a goal for 30% of Israel’s electricity to come from solar energy by 2030; currently, Israel is at 11%, putting it in second-place in the world for use of solar energy and first in the OECD. Connecting to the European electric grid will help Israel reach that goal.
“Solar energy is not stable,” Steinitz said. “We need electricity at night when there is no sun or in the winter when it can be cloudy for a week, and we cannot efficiently store solar power. When we rely so significantly on solar energy, we will need the backup to get what we’re missing from other countries.”
From Greece and Cyprus, to Egypt and the Palestinians, and now Lebanon and the UAE, Steinitz said gas “has been a very significant diplomatic driver in our relations with the Arab world around us and European states, and it’s just the beginning.”
“The energy sector is creating axes and connections between countries in the region in a way that didn’t exist before,” he said.