Energy minister: Deal has no benefit to Israel

UAE said spooked by Israeli plans to scrutinize controversial pipeline deal

Reports say Abu Dhabi surprised to hear that agreement to pipe Gulf oil through Israel could be in jeopardy, sparking tension between Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem

This aerial photograph, taken on February 10, 2021, shows the oil storage containers of the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) in the mountains near Israel's Red Sea port city of Eilat. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)
This aerial photograph, taken on February 10, 2021, shows the oil storage containers of the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) in the mountains near Israel's Red Sea port city of Eilat. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)

The government plans to review a controversial deal signed with the United Arab Emirates to pipe Gulf oil through Israel on the way to European markets, the Haaretz daily reported Friday.

The report came just hours before Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke with United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, in his first call with the de facto ruler of the Gulf kingdom since becoming prime minister.

Channel 13 said that despite the friendly nature of the call, the UAE was seriously concerned about the report to reevaluate the deal and it was causing tensions between Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem.

According to Haaretz, Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid plan to convene a high-level meeting next week on the subject and that new Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg was opposed to the deal.

Earlier in the week, the state told the High Court that the new government planned to conduct a thorough review of the deal.

They were responding to a petition submitted in May by three green organizations who charged that the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the state-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Company with the UAE in October should be made null and void given that it was neither discussed nor approved by the government, nor opened for consultation with experts and the public.

The accord provides for the EAPC to transfer crude oil and oil-related products from its Red Sea terminal in Eilat to its terminal in Ashkelon on the southern Mediterranean coast via a land-based pipeline that connects the two.

It is opposed by the former and current environmental protection ministers, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the local coastal authorities, a forum of some 20 environmental organizations, scores of scientists and Eilat residents.

The opposition is due in large part to the EAPC’s shoddy environmental record and numerous past leaks — it was responsible seven years ago for the largest environmental disaster in Israel’s history when one of its pipelines ruptured, sending some 1.3 million gallons of crude oil into the Evrona Nature Reserve in southern Israel.

EAPC told the court that its own risk assessments found the chances of a large-scale spill were negligible.

Oil seeps between desert bushes in the Evrona Nature Reserve, December 7, 2014. (Environmental Protection Ministry spokesperson/Roi Talbi)

According to Haaretz, Energy Minister Karine Elharrar told a meeting in her office earlier this week that she saw no energy benefit to Israel from the deal, but was not aware of its full details.

“Our position in the energy ministry is that we do not see any energy benefits for the Israeli economy in this agreement,” Haaretz quoted her as telling environmental activists. “If it is canceled we do not see any damage in the sphere.”

New Energy Minister Karine Elharrar (center) and former minister Yuval Steinitz (left) at a handover ceremony on June 15, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

In response to the report, Elharrar told Haaretz she regrets that internal conversations were leaked, but she stands by her remarks. She clarified that her position was based on media reports of the deal and neither she nor her office had first-hand knowledge of the details of the agreement.

In court, the EAPC claimed that as a government company it is not required to report to or receive approval for the agreements it signs from government ministries, “other than those which supervise its activity by law.” The operation of the pipeline, which was created to transfer Iranian oil to Europe via Israel before the Islamic Revolution, is not subject to public oversight as it is considered a national security matter.

The Finance Ministry, under which the EAPC operates, has said in the past that it had no information about the MOU that was signed.

Despite the concerns, it appears that Bennett and Lapid are unlikely to willingly shelve the deal if it angers the UAE.

Israel and the Emirates announced in August that they would normalize diplomatic relations, bringing over a decade of covert ties into the open. Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco later also joined the US-brokered Abraham Accords.

The new government has made it a priority to push ahead with the Abraham Accords. Lapid earlier this week confirmed that he will travel to Morocco for an official visit, and that his Moroccan counterpart will visit Israel following the renewal of direct flights between Rabat and Tel Aviv later this month.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, left, shakes hands with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, June 29, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/Government Press Office via AP)

The readouts from the conversation Friday between Bennett and the UAE’s crown prince made no mention of the pipeline.

Bennett called bin Zayed to congratulate him on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha and to discuss the burgeoning ties between the two countries, according to a statement from Bennett’s office.

“The prime minister thanked the crown prince for opening an embassy in Israel and for hosting the official visit of Foreign Minister Yair Lapid,” the statement said.

Bennett also noted the importance of the strategic relations between Israel and the UAE on a wide range of issues, saying that the attitude of the UAE toward Israel “was an important change and was an inspiration to other countries and leaders in the region.”

“The two agreed to be in contact and meet in the future,” the statement said.

The UAE confirmed the conversation and said that the two leaders “discussed cooperation relations between the two countries and ways to enhance them, in addition to a number of issues. Regional and international interests.”

Last month Lapid traveled to the UAE to open Israel’s embassy there, the first official visit by an Israeli minister to the Gulf state.

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