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Israel joins new regional forum in hope of selling gas to Europe

Jewish state partners with Egypt, Jordan, Greece, Cyprus, Italy and the Palestinian Authority to formalize East Mediterranean energy club; Turkey left in cold

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Israel's Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz poses with a copy of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) statute signed by Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Greece, Cyprus, Italy and the Palestinian Authority; on September 22, 2020.  (Energy Ministry)
Israel's Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz poses with a copy of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) statute signed by Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Greece, Cyprus, Italy and the Palestinian Authority; on September 22, 2020. (Energy Ministry)

Against a backdrop of rapidly changing geopolitics in the Middle East, Israel on Tuesday joined Egypt, Jordan, Greece, Cyprus, Italy and the Palestinian Authority to sign the statute of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), formally establishing the brainchild of Israel and Egypt as a regional intergovernmental organization, based in Cairo.

The forum wants to cooperate on the establishment of a natural gas pipeline connecting Israel, Greece and Cyprus to Italy and on to Europe. The eventual aim is to supply the continent with ten percent of its gas.

The forum was initiated three years ago by Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz together with his Egyptian counterpart, Tarek El Mula. The Egyptians hosted Tuesday’s online signing, which followed the inking of a Memorandum of Understanding in January.

The directors general of each member country’s energy ministry will now form a working group to take things forward, while an advisory committee will be set up to include private sector international energy companies.

France has applied to join the body and the European Union and the United States are involved as observers. The latter is particularly concerned with reining in the power of Russia, which last year remained the largest supplier of natural gas and petroleum oils to the EU, ahead of Norway.

Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz poses with a copy of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), on September 22, 2020

The joint declaration signed Tuesday said that the EMGF would “contribute to advancing regional stability and prosperity, creating an environment of trust, prosperity, stability and neighborly relations through regional energy cooperation.”

The forum, it went on, is “open for any East Mediterranean country to apply for membership and for any other country, regional, or international organization to apply to join as an observer, given that they share the same values and objectives of the EMGF and the willingness to cooperate for the welfare of the whole region.”

Steinitz said the “blessing” of natural gas had brought regional cooperation with European and Arab countries and that existing Israeli deals worth $30 million to export gas to Egypt and Jordan were “only the beginning.”

Israel’s Tamar and Leviathan gas fields — along with the smaller Karish and Tanin fields set to start production in 2021 — are seen as a bonanza for a nation that has traditionally been starved for natural resources.

The elephant in the room was Turkey, which, to the chagrin of the EU and other states, has been carrying out exploratory drilling in waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece. Last month, it sent a survey vessel into Greek-claimed waters, escorted by warships

The American business news channel CNBC last month quoted Hami Aksoy, the spokesperson for Turkey’s foreign ministry, suggesting that the new forum was an “alliance of malice.”

In this photo provided by the Turkish Defense Ministry on August 10, 2020, Turkey’s research vessel, Oruc Reis, in red and white, is surrounded by Turkish navy vessels as it headed to the west of Antalya on the Mediterranean Sea. (Turkish Defense Ministry via AP)
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