Driven by economic and political interests,

US, Russia and Israel support energy supply despite Caesar Act

Driven by economic and political interests,

US, Russia and Israel support energy supply despite Caesar Act

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Zeinab Masri -Diana Rahima-Hussam al-Mahmoud 

The U.S., Russia and Israel are gearing up for major gains from delivering natural gas via reviving the Arab Gas Pipeline (AGP), which originates near the city of Arish on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and extends through Jordan, Syria and into Lebanon. 

Sidelined from international politics for more than ten years, the Syrian regime is getting involved again in regional deals following the converging of interests between the Syrian regime and influential countries. The regime makes efforts to use these deals and re-establish its presence in the Middle East.

 The AGP project (that will see Egyptian natural gas piped to Lebanon via Jordan and Syria under a plan to end Lebanon’s crippling power crisis) was an encouraging first step for Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who took the lead in the Arab initiative for normalization with the Syrian government. Then, the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed took a similar step by visiting the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, in Damascus, about two weeks ago. 

Given the large number of countries controlling decision-making in the Syrian arena, the AGP project was not the result of Arab consensus only, but rather it was perhaps the product of the decisions and interests of the major dominant and active countries in the Syrian file.

In this in-depth article, Enab Baladi discusses the benefits the U.S., Russia, and Israel could get from re-functioning the AGP, a project to supply Lebanon with electricity and gas through Syrian territory.

Even though the U.S. reaffirms its continuing obligations to impose the Caesar Act sanctions against the Syrian regime, Washington seemingly realizes that it has strategic interests regarding reviving the AGP. Furthermore, as an exporter of natural gas, Israel seeks to yield economic benefits from the AGP. On the other hand, Russia aims to prove its ability to achieve stability and start Syria’s reconstruction.  

The US exempts the regime from sanctions and competes with Iran in Lebanon

There have been many talks that the U.S. may grant a waiver for the Caesar Act, which imposes heavy sanctions on the Syrian regime because any gas and electricity from Egypt and Jordan—and Israel—will have to pass through Syria. The Lebanese Presidency received, last August, a phone call from the U.S. ambassador and was informed of the U.S. administration’s decision “to assist Lebanon in extracting electrical energy from Jordan, via Syria, through Egyptian gas.”

After this announcement, the U.S. government took a stance on the project providing Lebanon with energy via Syria despite the Caesar sanctions; the U.S. government supports efforts to “find creative,transparent and sustainable energy solutions that will address Lebanon’s acute energy, and fuel shortages.”

After that, news spread that Washington is considering lifting sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019 after the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a session last September.

Then, Lebanese Energy Minister Walid Fayad said on 20 October that Amos Hochstein, the U.S. mediator for Lebanon-Israel maritime and the senior U.S. adviser for global energy security, assured him that participants in the project supply Lebanon with Egyptian gas will be shielded from the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Law. 

 

The natural gas field of Tamar in the Mediterranean Sea (Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot)

The natural gas field of Tamar in the Mediterranean Sea (Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot)

Does the Biden administration’s support for the project contravene U.S. sanctions on Syria?

The U.S. administration is supportive of efforts “to resolve Lebanon’s energy shortages in a way that is consistent with U.S. sanctions on Syria,” a senior state department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Enab Baladi in an email. 

The official added that the U.S. administration is “deeply concerned about Lebanon’s acute energy crisis and its implications for the stability of the Lebanese state. The lack of fuel and power in Lebanon is threatening the delivery of critical services to the Lebanese people, such as health care and water.”

The official added that Washington is in contact with the governments of Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, as well as the World Bank, to get a more comprehensive understanding of how these arrangements would be structured and funded and to ensure that they are in line with U.S. policy and address any potential sanctions concerns. 

The official stressed that the U.S. administration did not lift sanctions on Syria or change its position opposing the reconstruction of Syria until there is irreversible progress toward a “necessary and vital” political solution.

“While humanitarian assistance is exempted, many other investments in regime-held areas are not,” the official said. 

Syrian Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade, Mohammad Samer al-Khalil, said in a press conference, which was held on 13 October, that the ministry completed the procedures for signing a contract with an Emirati firm (he did not mention its name)to build a solar power plant. Al-Khalil also boasted that the Syrian regime has become very “professional” with circumventing the sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime. 

The Syrian minister pointed out that companies that fear sanctions can do business without mentioning their real names. However, numerous companies do not fear sanctions because they do not deal with Western countries.

Reassuring messages to neighbouring countries

Enab Baladi raised a question during a seminar held on 19 November in Istanbul about whether the project, which aims to send Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity to cash-strapped Lebanon via Syria, will contravene the Caesar Act Sanctions. In response, Joel Rayburn, the former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Levant Affairs and Special Envoy for Syria said that the current arrangements regarding the transportation of natural gas to Lebanon via Syria have nothing to do with the Caesar Act. Put another way; the U.S. government does not comment on the existence of possible or pending sanctions action.  

Joel Rayburn thinks that the proposed gas deal cannot avoid the Caesar Act. Legal discussions regarding the possibility of Washington providing Caesar Act waivers to the Assad regime are underway. So far, there have been no official exemptions or exceptions regarding the Caesar Act. 

Rayburn believes that the U.S. administration does not support any kind of economic or political normalization with the Syrian regime. Actually, the U.S. supports this project only to help Lebanon with electricity provision. 

Rayburn pointed out that there are no formal written agreements yet, just letters. After the energy deal is drafted, Congress experts will consider it carefully, and if they realize that it violates the Caesar law, there will be no energy deal.

He highlighted that the countries involved in the deal will not directly receive a response from the U.S. Congress in 2022, and they will not get a response before the beginning of 2023, according to Rayburn.

Rayburn believes this deal is not likely to happen, and if this deal takes into force, it will be under the supervision of the U.S. Congress. He pointed out that any country or company considering participating in a deal of this kind must take a step back and think hard about the legal exposure it could be subjected to.

On 5 November, the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar reported that the Egyptian government received the letter it was waiting for from the U.S. The letter says that Egypt is allowed to sign a contract with Lebanon to supply it with natural gas.  

According to the newspaper, the letter reads that the U.S. allows Egypt and companies working to maintain and operate the gas pipelines to sell natural gas to Lebanon without being exposed to any sanctions under the Caesar Act. 

According to the letter, Lebanon will sign, in accordance with negotiations conducted in Cairo by the Lebanese Minister of Energy and Water, Walid Fayyada, a contract to purchase gas from Egypt for about ten years. 

The Lebanese Minister of Energy stated after he met with the senior adviser to the U.S. State Department for energy security, Amos Hochstein, on 20 October that Hochstein has assured him that “participants in the project to supply Lebanon with Egyptian gas will be shielded from the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Law.”

Egyptian gas pipeline (Expressive imagery )

Egyptian gas pipeline (Expressive imagery )

A U.S. refusal to explain the Syrian regime’s economic gains

Last August, Republican Congressman Bryan Steil and Senator Joe Wilson submitted an amendment to the budget of the U.S. Department of Defense, requesting a report on the economic benefits that will accrue to the Syrian regime as a result of re-functioning the AGP. In addition, the report shall also explain why the U.S. administration has given the green light to initiate this project. 

The text of the amendment reads that “the Secretary of State and in coordination with the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Treasury, shall submit to the appropriate congressional committees a report that describes the hard currency and other financial benefits that the Assad regime in Syria will obtain through transit fees for allowing the export of gas into Lebanon through the Arab Gas Pipeline in the case that the President issues a waiver under the Caesar Syria 16 Civilian Protection Act of 2019.” However, their request was not granted. 

Republican Congresswoman Michelle Fischbach tried to submit the same report again last September, but the amendment did not get the votes needed again for approval by the Democrats. 

Syrian academic researcher and economic analyst Karam Shaar told Enab Baladi that at the beginning, nobody knew how much cash that the Syrian regime would obtain from the AGP. However, the official consensus laid out that the Syrian regime will get no cash.  

Syrian Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources Bassam Tohme said that his country would benefit from re-functioning the AGP by taking specific quantities of Egyptian gas that will help with the electricity generating process in Syria. 

Tohme noted that the Lebanese side requested 600 million cubic meters of gas per year, i.e. an average of 1.6 million cubic meters per day.

For her part, Jordan’s Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources, Hala Zawati, also confirmed that Syria’s share of the project to transfer Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity to Lebanon would be gas and electricity, not mostly a financial return.

U.S.’s first concern is terrorism 

The Washington-based political activist Mohammed Ghanem believes that the Democratic Party sought—since the administration of the U.S. President Barack Obama—to reduce the U.S. footprint in the Middle East. This is because the U.S. has realized that its domestic investments outweigh the current importance of the region. In other words, when the U.S. became energy independent, it found out that it no longer needed Arab oil that it needed in the seventies and eighties badly.

 Ghanem told Enab Baladi that the main lens through which the region is viewed is eradicating terrorism. Washington realized that the Middle East no longer needs the U.S. presence that characterized previous decades.

The U.S. presence has decreased in the region simultaneously with concluding the Iran Nuclear Deal, integrating Iran into the international system, and opening the door for European investments in Iran and making full peace with Iran. Thus, the region becomes divided against itself between Iran (a strong state, yet, it represents the regional Shia minority) and states that are less powerful but have a majority of Sunni Muslims. Thus, the region becomes balanced according to the U.S. perspective. 

Former Syrian diplomat Bassam Barbandi told Enab Baladi that the U.S. is rebuilding its strategy in the region in a way that protects its interests; the U.S. aims to ensure the security of oil-water crossings, oil installations and Israel, counter-terrorism, and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and technologies.

Furthermore, the U.S. attempts to stay away from the problems in the region, especially those with no direct effects on its interests, leaving the regional countries loyal to the U.S.to to take the lead in solving existing problems.

Barbandi believes that this is the broader picture of U.S. thinking. The U.S. policy is based on supporting its Arab partners with ideas on how to deal with the Syrian regime. The U.S. ideas are predominantly economic. For example, the U.S. aims to help Jordan and Egypt economically rather than being open to the Syrian regime. This is evidenced by the fact that Washington disapproves of Emirati electricity projects in Syria. 

Syria’s territory is turned into an arena for settling scores between countries, passing messages and drawing red lines. For Washington and Moscow, Syria is like a land that assesses the likelihood of cooperation between them. Moreover, Washington sends positive messages to Iran via Syria, such as allowing the Syrian regime to import oil from Iran. Indeed, Washington can change this positive approach in a minute if it wants. 

The Iran-US rivalry

The U.S. backs the proposal to supply Lebanon with Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity because it wants to contain Iran’s influence in the region. The U.S. fears that Iran will be delivering more fuel to Lebanon through Hezbollah. There is a competition between the U.S. and Iran over influence in Lebanon, according to Khattar Abu Diab, a Franco-Lebanese political scientist, geopolitical consultant, specialist in Islam and the Middle East, and Professor of International Relations at Paris Sud University.

Abu Diab told Enab Baladi that Lebanon’s worsening fuel crisis prompted Hezbollah to put forward the idea of bringing in fuel from Iran through Syria, which Washington considered a significant challenge to it.

However, the U.S. administration did not have another solution regarding the delay in forming the Lebanese government. The idea of waiving part of the Caesar Act came up when the power supply deal was put on the table. The Syrian regime will be paid only for what is going to be transmitted through its territory, and the exemptions from the Ceasar act will not include anything more.

Abu Diab pointed out that the power supply deal has offered the Syrian regime an opportunity and an outlet for rebuilding relations with some countries. 

Over time, it has become clear that even Algeria, which was enthusiastic about the return of the Syrian regime to the Arab League, and which will host the summit set to take place in 2022, reversed its position during the previous days. Algeria announced that it did not invite the Syrian regime to attend the next Arab League summit. 

According to Abu Diab, Arab countries need to agree to make such an international decision unanimously.  Qatar declared that it rejects normalization with the Syrian regime. Besides, Egypt and Jordan did not offer their final approval for the regime’s return to the Arab League because everyone is still discussing finding a political solution and resolving the refugee crisis.

The Emirati-Jordanian rush to normalize with the Syrian regime remains related to the economic aspect and will not extend to the political aspect.

The U.S. government focuses on three main goals in Syria, according to a briefing conducted by the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs with responsibility for the Levant (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon) Ethan Goldrich.

This briefing, which Enab Baladi attended, took place on 17 November. These goals are as follows: the U.S. government aims to enhance the flow of humanitarian aid to Syria to alleviate the suffering of the Syrians, defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State(I.S.), ensuring that it does not re-establish itself—for this reason, the U.S. continues to be a military presence in Syria. The U.S. also aims to ensure the sustainability of local truces in Syria, prevent violence escalation, and protect Syrians from facing death or killing.

A card in the hands of Hezbollah 

 By receiving fuel from Iran, Hezbollah tried to use this vital material that the Lebanese people need now more than ever as a card in his hand to have more elements of power in Lebanon. However, the number of oil shipments from Iran did not meet 10 percent of the Lebanese market’s need for fuel.   

Abu Diab believes that it is too early to get excited about the idea of re-functioning the AGP because there are doubts about the pipeline’s eligibility in Syria, especially when we see the suffering of the Syrian people due to the lack of electricity. This means that certain problems have not been revealed about the actual situation of gas transmission and stations spread in Syria. 

Abu Diab does not rule out that the Syrian regime could blow up the pipelines and accuse the IS group, or perhaps Iran, of doing so. He added that maybe Iran, which is not happy about the power supply deal, could sabotage the AGP extended in Syria.

In other words, there are no guarantees for the implementation of the AGP or any kind of attempts to prevent a complete collapse in Lebanon.

On 18 September, a major fuel pipeline was targeted by the IS group after the Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources, Bassam Tohme, announced that the AGP extending in Syria is ready to transport Egyptian gas to Lebanon. 

Gas pipelines have been subjected to attacks since 2011 in Syria. The most recent was the bombing of the gas pipeline in the Juhaif area in the northern countryside of Deir Ezzor, which connects the areas under the control of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration and the areas controlled by the Syrian regime.

Reconstruction controls Russia’s positions

Moscow, an ally of the Syrian regime, underlines its role in the issue of the new power supply deal by asking Israel for U.S. mediation to ease the Caesar act sanctions on several sectors of the Syrian economy, including energy and infrastructure. 

This request for U.S. mediation raises questions: What benefits does Russia hope to realize in allowing the project to be carried out? What benefits can Russia get in the region, or How can Russia help the Syrian regime benefit from this project?

In a report issued on 28 October, the American Axios website said that Russian President Vladimir Putin asked Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to encourage the U.S. administration to ease some of its sanctions on the Syrian regime in order to allow Russian companies to participate in the reconstruction of the country, according to Israeli officials briefed on the talks.

Putin and Bennett met in the Russian city of Sochi on 22 October in a meeting that was “very good and in-depth,” and lasted much longer than planned, according to statements by Putin and Bennett, which were reported by the media outlets.

Last September, the Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat spoke about a meeting between White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin, and Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev. 

The newspaper said that headed by McGurk, Russia and the U.S. held talks in Geneva about the Egyptian natural gas piping to Lebanon via Jordan and Syria. 

The meeting also discussed the possibility of renewing the 2018 understanding of Daraa to keep Iran and its militias away from the line of disengagement with Israel, Turkey’s role in northern Syria, in addition to other related issues.

The Russian point of view: Opening the door to reconstruction projects

Russian journalist writer Andrei Ontikov, in an interview with Enab Baladi, considered that Russian interests in allowing the extension of the gas pipeline to Lebanon through Syrian territory are, of course, political above all.

Ontikov argued that helping crisis-hit Lebanon by letting gas and electricity transit through Syria would raise the issue of easing the U.S. sanctions on the Syrian regime and the Caesar Act sanctions first of all. And if this gas pipeline at least contributes to reducing sanctions on the regime, Russia will surely support such a step.

Ontikov said that, of course, Russia will pursue its economic interests if U.S. sanctions are reduced. Reviving the Egyptian natural Gas to Lebanon will lead to creating several projects on the Syrian territory, which will allow room for other economic programs thanks to Russian efforts for reconstruction and the return of refugees.

Does Russia aspire to achieve some interests when reviving the AGP?

“Still, Europe remains the ultimate destination for Mediterranean gas. Despite a policy of decarbonization, natural gas continues to have a place in the European energy mix. Diversification of gas imports is key to European energy security, particularly for EU members relying on Russian gas. The European Commission promotes a Mediterranean energy route as part of the Southern Gas Corridor strategy,” according to a study “Natural gas and geopolitics in the Eastern Mediterranean” prepared by Tolga Demiryol, an associate professor of political science at Turkey’s Altınbaş University. 

Syrian economist Khaled Terkawi, who specializes in Middle Eastern issues, does not think that Russia has an interest in constructing or renewing any gas pipeline in the region because Russia is the largest supplier of natural gas to the EU Moreover, Russia is the world’s leading producer and exporter of natural gas.

Furthermore, Russia, the world’s largest producer of crude oil, controls the European markets greatly. Therefore, Russia is keen to keep Europe under its control in terms of gas supply.

Speaking with Enab Baladi, Khaled Terkawi said that EU countries know that Russia is in a feud with them. Put another way, Russia could use gas as a pressure tool on them and make itself richer.

Therefore, the EU countries resort to diversifying their supplies and producing domestic gas. Today, the EU countries try to speed up their transition to renewables, including air, sun, and water, in an attempt to reduce their reliance on Russian gas dramatically. Furthermore, countries such as Qatar and Egypt try to provide gas to Europe in different ways.

The economic expert explained that Russia has had difficulties exporting gas from the region to Europe since the implementation of the AGP, which several countries in the Middle East agreed to establish in 2000. The project of the AGP was launched in 2003 to export Egyptian natural gas to the Arab countries in the east and from there to Europe.

Terkawi added that AGP, a trans-regional gas export pipeline built to carry natural gas from Egypt to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The AGP was supposed to be extended to Turkey (Kilis) then to Europe.

However, Stroytransgaz, one of the Russian Gazprom companies implementing the project, objected to the AGP project and stalled its implementation. Then, a Ukrainian company also faced problems with the implementation of the AGP. 

Khaled Terkawi said that Moscow has a problem with the fact that the region could be an exporter of natural gas to Europe because it wants to protect its own interests. And since Moscow opposed the implementation of the AGP project 12 years ago, it should even more vehemently object to the AGP today for its presence in the region. 

Terkawi does not see that Russia is interested in supporting the Syrian regime in the energy sector at the expense of its interests. The latter is among the “last concerns” of the Russians, except for what coincides with their interests.

Moscow believes that it has made a “sacrifice” in the region and wants to recover the price of this sacrifice with whatever it can get, and for years it has been trying to achieve its gains.

According to the expert, it is possible that Israel appeased Russia by giving it part of the gas fields or giving it the right to explore in the area in exchange for other benefits.

Last March, the Syrian regime’s Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources inked a contract, granting the Capital, a Russian company, an exclusive right to explore and develop oil in the offshore Block Number 1 in Syria’s economic zone in the Mediterranean off the coast of the Tartous governorate to the southern Syrian-Lebanese maritime borders in an area of 2,250 square kilometres.”

Russia has started taking advantage of its position by signing the 2013 Amrit contract, which is an unprecedentedly large agreement with a Russian company for oil and gas exploration in the Syrian territorial waters.

This is the second contract of its kind after Russia, and the Syrian government signed the 2013 Amrit contract.

The contract was described at the time as a huge agreement with a Russian company and the first of its kind for oil and gas exploration in Syrian territorial waters.

Gas pipelines: Egyptian mantle for Israeli gas

Recently, there have been many talks about a possible Israeli role in the energy deal, which is being pumped from Egypt to Lebanon through Jordan and Syria. Many media outlets have recently reported that the gas and electricity that will be provided to Lebanon, in the end, are of Israeli origin. 

And the Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat quoted unnamed sources as saying that the gas that will be supplied to Lebanon through the AGP—for which the relevant countries have conducted maintenance operations over the last period— is being passed according to an agreement formulated years ago by Amos Hochstein, who is one of the Senior energy diplomats in the U.S. State Department and the godfather of the Israeli gas export deal to Jordan. This agreement was conducted in 2014 with the support of former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who made the agreement based on “consolidating the axis of moderation between moderate Arab countries and Israel,” according to the newspaper.

According to the newspaper, the U.S. plan to provide Lebanon with energy and alleviate the present fuel crisis it is experiencing depends on the Israeli gas coming from the Egyptian Sinai, through Jordan and Syria, to Lebanon.

The newspaper also indicated that the Syrian regime and Hezbollah know the source of the gas, despite not talking about it publicly.

With the North Sinai gas pipelines transporting gas coming from Israel to Egypt, through which Egypt plans to pump gas to Jordan, the flow of gas will be secured from Arish towards the Red Sea in order to push the Israeli gas imported by Egypt through the Leviathan gas field.

This means that the gas will be transported to Jordan through a pipeline at the bottom of the Red Sea and then to Syria, while the gas pipeline in Jordan is used to transport Israeli gas to the two power stations in Zarqa and Smara. This means that gas can only be passed to Syria and Lebanon through Egyptian supplies of Israeli gas.

Egyptian gas pipeline (Expressive imagery)

Egyptian gas pipeline (Expressive imagery)

Israeli gas in Egyptian cloak

Israel has kept importing Egyptian gas to operate its institutions and the wheel of its economic and industrial life for a few years. However, the scales were tipped when Israel discovered large quantities of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Israel started to extract oil from some fields within the waters it controls in the Mediterranean Sea. This actually changed the flow of gas to run in the opposite direction, from Israel to Egypt, opening the door for gas exports through the same pipeline. 

A dispute has been waged between Lebanon and Israel over an area in the Mediterranean Sea spanning more than 2,290 square kilometres, which is rich in oil and gas. In October 2020, led by the former U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, Lebanon and Israel began formal indirect maritime border demarcation talks under U.S. and U.N. auspices. 

Khaled Terkawi, a Syrian economist, specializing in Middle East issues, explained to Enab Baladi that Israel knows well that it is too difficult to sell its surplus gas in the region because Arab countries, and even its neighbouring countries, will not buy gas from them. This prompted Israel to establish the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) with Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt with Italian and French support to sell its oil and gas sources through Egypt.

To serve this project, the Egyptian authorities built a group of refineries so that Israel’s natural gas could flow in its pipelines and refineries. Then, gas can be redistributed and sold to other countries. In other words, the gas will seemingly belong to Egypt, not to Israel. This process is similar to money laundering, according to Terkawi. 

In his interview with Enab Baladi, political science professor Khattar Abu Diab refers to questions about the country of origin of the gas that will go to Lebanon. He indicated that it is impossible to determine whether the gas coming to Lebanon is pure Egyptian gas or mixed with the Israeli gas that Egypt imports.

According to Abu Diab, when Russia approved the EMGF, this confirmed its involvement in the gas issue because gas supplies cannot be traversed through Syrian territory without Russian permission.

The Syrian regime has two options: to remain as the “Siamese twin of Iran” or “open up to Israel,” Abu Diab said. 

East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF)

An agreement to establish the EMGF, headquartered in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, was made in October 2018, during a tripartite summit that brought together Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, his Cypriot counterpart Nicos Anastasiades, and Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

The forum’s establishment, which is considered a regional organization, was announced in January 2019 to establish a regional gas market, rationalize the cost of infrastructure and provide competitive prices, according to the founding documents.

On 21 September 2020, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Palestine, as founding members, signed the agreement, marking the launch after the governments of these countries ratified the forum’s founding system.

 

To serve the Israeli economy?

According to the study, “Natural gas and geopolitics in the Eastern Mediterranean,” the region’s hydrocarbon potential is noteworthy, and the most accessible markets are Jordan and Egypt.

In 2016, Israel and Jordan signed a $10 billion deal to supply the latter with 45 billion cubic meters of gas over 15 years.

Israel also began exporting Leviathan gas to Jordan on a limited scale and selling gas to a private company in Egypt, via an underwater pipeline, in January 2020.

The study also revealed that “the Initial volumes are relatively low at about 2.1 bcm/year but both parties are considering expanding trade. It is also conceivable to re-export Israeli gas via Egypt’s underutilized LNG infrastructure in Idku and Damietta.”

Regional markets offer swift economic returns on the relatively low initial investment. Moreover, the local gas deals are often complicated because of the region’s unresolved conflicts and historical grievances.

“Given both the limits of regional energy markets and the political cost of gas deals, Israel and others have sought to diversify their export portfolios,” according to the study.

Gas used as a means to achieve normalization?

Even though Israel has intensified its efforts to normalize its relations with Arab countries (Israel signed four peace treaties with Arab countries before Trump’s term as US president ended), discussion of Syrian and Lebanese normalization with Israel is offset by some thorny political and security files on the ground: Most notably, Hezbollah’s dominance of power in Lebanon, the Iranian presence in Lebanon represented by Hezbollah’s support, and repeated infiltration and smuggling attempts on the land borders between the two sides to bring narcotic substances and weapons into the occupied Palestinian territories, according to what the Israeli army repeatedly announces.

With regard to Syria, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid stressed during his meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, last September in the Russian capital, Moscow,”there won’t be stability in Syria, or in the wider Middle East, while there is an Iranian presence. Iran is the world’s number one exporter of terror. It threatens us all.”

 During an interview, he gave to the Emirati website, ERM News, last October, the Minister of Regional Cooperation in the Israeli government, Issawi Freij, revealed possible normalization agreements that four countries might make with Israel, within the so-called “Ibrahim Agreements,” not including Syria and Lebanon.

Freij said that the Sultanate of Oman, Qatar, Tunisia and Malaysia might ink normalization agreements, and Israel has direct and indirect contacts with all Middle Eastern countries, even hostile ones.

 

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