Steinitz on breaking the Arab boycott and becoming an energy superpower

Steinitz's proposal will increase the country’s use of solar energy from just a few percentage points today to 30% within the next 10 years.

ENERGY MINISTER Yuval Steinitz walks in the Sea of Galilee in 2018. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
ENERGY MINISTER Yuval Steinitz walks in the Sea of Galilee in 2018.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
When Chevron announced two weeks ago that it was buying Noble Energy for $5 billion, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz felt a mix of personal and national pride.
Not only was it a sign that he had succeeded in turning Israel into an attractive and lucrative energy market that had enticed one of the world’s largest oil companies, but also because of the historic significance: Chevron coming to Israel was the final nail in the coffin of the infamous Arab Boycott.
From Israel’s inception until the 1980s, companies like Pepsi, McDonalds and Japanese car manufacturers had stayed away from the Jewish state, fearing economic retribution from Arab countries.
The boycott had pretty much collapsed by the mid-80s – except for the massive oil companies that had extensive ties and holdings throughout the Gulf. They continued to fear that any contact with Israel would undermine their core business. Chevron, for example, has a large presence in the Middle East, including in places like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that do not have formal diplomatic ties with Israel.
But Chevron is indeed coming, confirming what Steinitz has mentioned a number of times in recent weeks: that Israel has “defeated the Arab boycott.” Last week he held his first phone call with top executives at the San Ramon, California-based oil company, hopeful that the deal will help Israel tap into new energy markets in Europe and Asia.
For Steinitz though, news of the sale was not just a national victory over a boycott that started December 2, 1945; it was also a personal win. As finance minister from 2009-2013, he established the Sheshinski Committee and approved its recommendations, setting the taxation on natural gas fields amid great public uproar.
As energy minister since 2015, Steinitz has worked tirelessly to ensure that Israel succeeds in extracting gas from underwater fields in the Mediterranean, helping pave the way for the development of Leviathan and the beginning of its production last year. Just this past week, the Tax Authority revealed that by 2064, the state will see at least NIS 200 billion in revenue from Leviathan, as well as Israel’s other developed and undeveloped gas fields.
IRONICALLY, Steinitz wasn’t even sure that he would remain Israel’s energy minister after the election in March. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly wanted to remove him from the office, and tried to entice the former philosophy professor with a number of offers including taking the reins of Israel’s higher-education system.
But Steinitz refused to move out of the Energy Ministry for anything less than the Foreign Ministry, a portfolio that had been given to Blue and White in the new unity government. He wanted to stay put to complete plans he still has for Israel’s energy market. One of them was approved last week when the government green lighted the EastMed gas pipeline, the longest in the world, which will ferry gas from Israeli and Cypriot fields to Europe.
Then there is the plan Steinitz intends to roll out in August, when he will ask the cabinet to approve an 80 billion shekel plan to turn Israel into a solar energy powerhouse. His proposal will increase the country’s use of solar energy from just a few percentage points today to 30% within the next 10 years.
This would be a massive jump. Currently, there is only one serious solar energy field in Israel, near Kibbutz Ashalim in the Negev. In 2019, for example, solar energy production constituted just about 5% of Israel’s energy needs. With the installation of additional fields and panels across the country, the ministry hopes to reach 10% by the end of this year, making it second place in the world – just below Honduras – in terms of solar power production.
Laying a solar field is not as easy as you’d imagine, even when Israel during the summer months is hot all day – and every day. To do it effectively, the country needs to establish not only fields of solar panels, but also substations that collect the electricity to stream it where it needs to go. The sun can only really effectively provide electricity in Israel from about 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. This of course is dependent on the month of the year and whether there are clear skies that day.
IF THE PLAN is approved, what it means in practical terms is that by 2030, 70% of Israel’s electricity will come from gas and the other 30% from solar. That of course means less damage to the environment, and a significant increase in the use of renewable energy for a country that has no realistic alternative track – no dams for hydropower, and no real wind for wind turbines.
Israel has already cut its use of coal significantly: when Steinitz took office in 2015, coal was the fuel for almost 50% of Israeli energy production. Within a year he cut it to 35%. By the end of 2020, the expectation is that coal will be responsible for a mere 24% of our electricity.
The dramatic reduction in coal use has led to a 50% decrease in pollution of NOx (nitrogen oxides) as well as SO2 (sulfur dioxide), which together cause a wide range of respiratory diseases. The decrease in coal has also allowed Israel to keep its commitment under the 2016 Paris Agreement, which required signatories to reduce CO2 emissions.
According to Steinitz’s plan, coal will make up only 3% of Israel’s energy production within five years, and no coal will be burned in Israel at all by 2026. Not bad for a country that never could have imagined a few years ago that it would one day be an independent energy superpower.
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Emil Grunzweig is seen fourth from left. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)Emil Grunzweig is seen fourth from left. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
 
Beyond the ambitious energy plans, Yuval Steinitz was on my mind this week for another reason, not connected to Chevron or solar panels. On February 10, 1983, he was part of a group of Peace Now demonstrators who were marching from downtown Jerusalem to the Prime Minister’s Office to protest the war in Lebanon. These were the days before the Oslo Accords, after which Steinitz crossed partisan lines and joined the Likud.
 
 
When the demonstrators passed the Bank of Israel, a far-right activist lobbed a grenade into the crowd, killing Emil Grunzweig, a 33-year-old teacher. Steinitz, standing nearby, was hit by shrapnel.
The murder of Grunzweig and the attack against left-wing protestors came up this week after a group of far-right activists violently attacked – with broken glass bottles, bats and chairs – a group of demonstrators marching through Tel Aviv to protest Public Security Minister Amir Ohana’s attempt to stop the almost-daily protests outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem.
This week, Steinitz recalled that day in 1983. As President Reuven Rivlin noted on Wednesday, Steinitz agreed that the possibility someone will try to assassinate the prime minister or kill a protester is no longer imaginary. It is real – and it is here.
AS A people, we would prefer to pretend that internal strife is not part of our story. We would much rather cling to the viral picture of the Muslim and Jewish paramedics praying alongside one another – each in their own way – next to their Magen David Adom ambulance. We would much rather listen to rock star Aviv Geffen – with tears in his eyes – plead that the time has come for secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis to come together and bridge the divide that has separated them for so long.
Unfortunately, we can’t. We cannot ignore what is happening and how this country is turning against itself more and more. Right against Left. Jew against Arab. Secular against Haredi. The pro-Netanyahu camp against the anti-Netanyahu camp. Everyone against the other.
I know that not everything is the government’s fault, but leadership is needed now to send the right message – and it’s nowhere to be found.
When Netanyahu and Benny Gantz formed their government two months ago, they said the two sides would form a “reconciliation cabinet” that would work to heal the country and the internal divide. Guess how many times it has met in the last two months: Weekly? Monthly? Even once?
We know the answer. It has not convened – it has not even been established yet!
What kind of message does that send to people? What kind of message do people get when they hear politicians call legitimate protestors “anarchists,” accusing them of “spreading diseases”?
What are we waiting for? For someone to feel like they have been pushed over the edge and then decide to take a grenade, a gun or a knife – and use it?
What kind of energy are we producing – right now?