Israel-Jordan gas deal a bulwark against Jihadis: expert

Top security official says the $15 billion sale of Israeli natural gas could bolster regimes in Jordan and Egypt

Workers on the Israeli 'Tamar' gas processing rig, 24 km off the Israeli southern coast of Ashkelon. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)
Workers on the Israeli 'Tamar' gas processing rig, 24 km off the Israeli southern coast of Ashkelon. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

A huge deal to sell Israeli natural gas to Jordan could counter the threat of Islamic extremists there and strengthen the Western-oriented kingdom, according to a security expert.

The agreement to sell Jordan natural gas worth $15 billion over the next 15 years is the third leg of a trilateral regional arrangement designed to shore up relations between Jerusalem, Amman and Cairo – and to ensure the survival of the regimes in two Arab nations, according to Brig. Gen. (Res.) Nitzan Nuriel, research associate at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, IDC Herzliya. “Israel will produce the gas, Egypt will liquefy it, and Jordan will benefit from it, along with Egypt and Israel,” said Nuriel. “The people in all three countries will be very happy to have a secure supply of energy at a reasonable price.”

First, though, the deal has to be approved by governments in both Israel and Jordan. “It’s true a contract was signed, but it was signed between private companies,” said Nuriel, a former director of the Counter Terrorism Bureau in the Prime Minister’s Office and a member of the National Security Council. “Israel is almost sure to approve it, and I believe Jordan will as well, despite the danger of political pressure against doing so.”

The deal comes at a time when Islamic State radicals are making gains in Iraq, which shares a border with Jordan, and could threaten Jordan as well.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listens to Jordan's King Abdullah II, left, as they meet at the Royal Palace in Amman, Jordan on Thursday, January 16, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Yousef Allan, Jordanian Royal Palace)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listens to Jordan’s King Abdullah II, left, as they meet at the Royal Palace in Amman, Jordan on Thursday, January 16, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Yousef Allan, Jordanian Royal Palace)

As a weak country trying to dance through the raindrops of conflicting pressures, Jordan has a spotty history when it comes to relations with Israel. Although the peace treaty Jordan signed with Israel in 1994 has withstood the strain of numerous wars, anti-Israel interest groups in Jordan have done their best to defang the deal, seeking to prevent Israelis from visiting Jordan, or pressuring the government to withdraw its ambassador in Tel Aviv, with limited success but many headlines.

Reflecting that, on Thursday a Jordanian government official stressed that the deal was not with Israel, but with US company Noble Energy, which owns 35% of the Leviathan natural gas field. “We allow all Jordanian companies, whether public or private, to import gas from anywhere they want and think is feasible. This agreement between the power company and Noble Energy is part of the government’s interest to help institutions address challenges they face due to rising energy costs,” said Jordanian Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Mohammad Hamed.

But the bottom line is the bottom line, said Nuriel. “Of course they are free to back out of this gas deal, but they know that this is the best alternative for them. Israel is not going to play politics with the gas the way some Gulf states have tried to, and they know this. With Israel, a contract is a contract, and the secure supply of energy at a reasonable price will help people ‘forget’ where it came from.”

In June, Israel signed a deal with Egypt to transfer gas there, where it will be liquefied, and then shipped back to Israel – and now to Jordan as well – for use in electrical plants. “For the first time, all three countries will have a safe, assured, and cheap supply of electricity,” said Nuriel. “Israelis will benefit, of course, but in Jordan and Egypt – both countries with large impoverished populations – the gas deal will be a solid, measurable metric of the benefits of peace and regional cooperation. That will help boost the regimes in the eyes of the masses, and strengthen both Egyptian President el-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah in their own struggle against Islamist insurgents.”

Islamists are a significant reason both Egypt and Jordan are anxious to see the deal work. “Jihadis ruined the Egyptian gas business, which was based on gas harvested and shipped by pipeline from Sinai,” said Nuriel, by blowing up the pipelines time after time. “Unfortunately, Sinai is a no-man’s land, beyond the control of any army. By blowing up the pipelines, the Islamists ironically drove Egypt to a deal with Israel.”

Under the deal with Egypt, Nobel Energy and Delek Group, the partners managing the offshore Leviathan gas field, will transfer the gas to a liquefied natural gas plant in Idku, near Alexandria in Egypt proper. From there it will be transported to Jordan.

“The areas where the pipes are to be laid are under strict control of authorities, so they are much less likely to be subject to attack than the pipelines in Sinai were,” Nuriel noted. And if the regimes in either Jordan or Egypt change for the worse? “Then Israel will just find some other country to sell its gas to.”

Israel is betting on the long-term stability of both the el-Sisi and Abdullah regimes. “Israel decided to scuttle its developing gas deal with Turkey and go with Egypt because the Turkish government has shown that it cannot be relied on,” said Nuriel. “The presidential elections in Turkey this past month guarantee that Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be in charge for at least another decade. Relations with Turkey are not going to get better anytime soon, certainly not good enough to justify a multi-billion dollar deal like this.” Erdogan has shifted Turkey’s direction from Western-oriented to the Middle East, severely straining relations with Israel in the process.

Even if King Abdullah is able to withstand the criticism he is likely to face at home from anti-Israel elements, he may also get grief for the deal from the Arab world, but Nuriel doesn’t think Arab League criticism will make too much of an impression on Abdullah. “The Gulf states have made Jordan many promises when it comes to energy, but have fulfilled few. All Abdullah has to do if the Saudis and Qataris complain about this is to insist that they sell him oil or gas in the same quantities and at the same price Jordan will be obtaining it from Israel. But if they haven’t done so until now, they are unlikely to do it now, either.”

Beyond that, said Nuriel, it’s becoming clear to the Saudis – and even the Qataris – that they are better off with Israel as a business partner, if not a peace partner. “Even in Qatar, where they have been big supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, I believe things are changing.” The rise of ISIS, the Islamist group that seeks to build a Muslim caliphate that will sweep away the current regimes of the Middle East, “shows what happens when you let the Islamist genie out of the bottle,” said Nuriel. “You can’t control that genie, and given the choice of ISIS or Israel, I think most Middle Eastern leaders will choose us as the preferable ‘evil.’”

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