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EU chief, Italian PM in Israel, with Russia-sparked energy crisis topping agenda

Ursula Von der Leyen to meet Bennett and Lapid, whose government has sought to improve ties with bloc; both EU chief and Mario Draghi to also meet with PA premier

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, right, greets Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi prior to a meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels, March 7, 2022. (Kenzo Tribouillard, Pool Photo via AP)
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, right, greets Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi prior to a meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels, March 7, 2022. (Kenzo Tribouillard, Pool Photo via AP)

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi landed in Israel on Monday, as the EU seeks to wean itself off Russian fossil fuel imports.

Both leaders were due to hold energy talks in Israel, which has turned from a natural gas importer into an exporter in recent years, cashing in major offshore finds.

Von der Leyen was to meet Foreign Minister Yair Lapid later Monday and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Tuesday, with talks expected to focus “in particular on energy cooperation,” a commission statement said.

Draghi, on his first Middle East trip since taking office last year, was also set to discuss energy and food security during his two-day trip, Italian media reported.

Both leaders will meet Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh on Tuesday in the West Bank.

Israel’s ties with the EU frayed during former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure over the lack of movement on the Palestinian issue. Relations have slowly improved over the last year since the new Israeli government was sworn in, with Lapid leading the effort.

Related: Visiting EU president tells ToI: We’ll pressure Putin for as long as it takes

On Sunday, the cabinet unanimously approves joining the EU’s Creative Europe program through 2027. The program offers almost 2.5 billion euros every seven years toward films, visual art, literature and other creative endeavors.

Projects beyond the June 1967 lines — in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights — are not eligible for funding. As with Israel’s agreement with the EU on joining the Horizon Europe R&D funding program, a clause was added stating that Israel does not accept the EU’s definition of territory beyond the 1967 lines as illegal settlements.

European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu address a media conference at the EU Council building in Brussels on Monday, December 11, 2017. (AP Photo/ Virginia Mayo)

In 2017, then-culture minister Miri Regev withdrew Israel’s application to join Creative Europe at the last minute over the settlement exclusion issue after three years of negotiations. In July 2021, Culture Minister Chili Tropper met with his French counterpart Roselyne Bachelot in Cannes to restart talks over Israel joining the program.

The EU this month formally adopted a ban on most Russian oil imports, its toughest sanctions yet over the war in Ukraine. Von der Leyen has suggested the bloc end its dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, including gas, by 2027.

Draghi and other EU leaders have warned European customers may need protection as energy costs continue to rise.

Israeli Energy Minister Karine Elharrar and other officials have said their country could help meet EU demand if it can deliver gas from its offshore reserves estimated at nearly 1,000 billion cubic meters.

Ahead of Von der Leyen’s visit, European Commission spokeswoman Dana Spinant told reporters to “stay tuned for announcements that we are going to make on energy cooperation with Israel and other partners in the region.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett sits with Energy Minister Karine Elharrar at the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland, a day after she was unable to enter because of lack of handicapped accessibility. (courtesy)

Export options

For now, the prospect of getting Israeli gas to Europe is fraught with challenges and would require major and long-term infrastructure investments.

With no pipeline linking its offshore fields to Europe, one option, for now, is piping natural gas to Egypt, where it could be liquified for export by ship to Europe.

Another possible scenario is building a pipeline to Turkey.

Israel’s ties with Ankara have thawed after more than a decade of diplomatic rupture and experts have said Turkey’s desire for joint energy projects has partly triggered its outreach to Israel.

That pipeline project would take $1.5 billion and two to three years to complete, according to Israel’s former energy minister Yuval Steinitz, now an opposition lawmaker.

Option three is known as the EastMed project, a proposal for a seafloor pipeline linking Israel with Cyprus and Greece.

Experts have, however, raised concerns about the cost and viability of the project, while Israel has said it would like to see Italy sign on.

The Europe Asia Pipeline Company’s oil boom in Eilat, designed to catch any potential oil spill before it leaks more broadly into the sea. (Courtesy EAPC)

A spokesperson for Elharrar, the energy minister, told AFP on Monday there have been talks since March to create an agreement or legal framework to enable Israeli gas exports to Europe via Egypt.

Further complicating Israel’s offshore gas production is a long-running maritime border dispute with Lebanon.

The neighbors technically remain at war but have agreed to US-mediated talks aimed at delineating the border to allow both countries to boost exploration.

Talks broke down last year, but Israel has urged Lebanon to re-engage.

Tensions flared this month following a Lebanese claim that Israeli production was taking place in contested waters.

Israel countered that the area was located clearly south of the disputed zone.

The US envoy mediating the maritime border talks, Amos Hochstein, also arrived in Beirut on Monday as Washington once again tries its luck on negotiating a maritime border between Israel and Lebanon

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