EU’s von der Leyen, Italian PM in Israel for energy talks

Ursula von der Leyen (L), President of the European Commission, met with Yair Lapid, Israel's foreign minister. [European Union, 2022]

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi began meetings in Israel on Monday (13 June) as the EU seeks to wean itself off Russian fossil fuel imports.

Both leaders embarked on energy talks with Israel, which has turned from a natural gas importer into an exporter in recent years thanks to major offshore finds.

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

On Monday, she met with Foreign Minister Yaid Lapid, who said in a statement that Israel’s ties with the EU were a “strategic asset”, and later met with Energy Minister Karine Elharrar, whose spokesperson told AFP Von der Leyen reiterated “the EU need for Israeli gas.”

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

He was also set to meet with Bennett on Tuesday, the Israeli premier’s office said.

Speaking at a synagogue in Jerusalem shortly after landing, the Italian premier said his government was “committed to strengthening the memory of the Holocaust and to fighting against discrimination of all kinds against Jews”.

Draghi later met with Lapid, with the Israeli foreign minister’s office saying the “two discussed strengthening and deepening ties between Israel and Italy, the geopolitical situation in the wake of the war in Ukraine, and cooperation between their two countries.”

Draghi and Von der Leyen will on Tuesday meet Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

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 said the bloc hopes to 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.

Elharrar and other Israeli 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 metres.

Export options

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”.

For now, 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 Steizitz, now an opposition lawmaker.

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

Erdogan says Turkey, Israel can jointly bring gas to Europe

Turkey and Israel can work together to carry Israeli natural gas to Europe and the two countries will discuss energy cooperation during talks next month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was quoted as saying on Friday (4 February).

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.

A spokesperson for the Israeli energy minister told AFP on Monday that 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 neighbours 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 clearly located south of the disputed zone.

The US envoy mediating the maritime border talks, Amos Hochstein, was due in Lebanon on Monday.

Ukraine war revives EastMed gas pipe talks but EU insists on feasibility

Europe’s new push for diversification from Russia’s energy has revived talks about a pipeline bringing natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Greece and the rest of south-east Europe. However, the European Commission still insists on the EastMed pipeline’s commercial viability before giving its final blessing.

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