Israel-UAE pipeline deal in question, but budding relations unlikely to deteriorate

Energy Minister Karine Elharrar’s call on Tuesday to cancel a pipeline deal with a UAE company has cast doubt on the deal. But relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, normalized just over a year ago, are unlikely to deteriorate because of this.

Criticized by environmentalists, the deal is intended to facilitate the transportation of Gulf oil from the Red Sea port of Eilat in Israel, moved across the country by pipeline to a Mediterranean port and then shipped to its final destination in Europe. . Eilat is home to large coral reefs, which are considered one of the most diverse concentrations in the world. The presence of large tankers near delicate underwater ecosystems could seriously damage them.

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The coral reserve in Eilat

Eilat coral reef

(Photo: Chen Toufikian, Israel Nature and Parks Authority )

Eilat’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism, and the prized reefs are one of the main attractions. “The agreement poses many risks for the Gulf of Eilat and its residents, and it also does not benefit the Israeli energy market,” Elharrar said in an interview.

Any environmental disaster in Eilat, as a result of human error or other circumstances, would also immediately affect Egypt and Jordan, which also border the waters of the Gulf.

Eilat’s coral reefs have recovered from disasters in the past, both man-made and natural. Israeli environmental groups have petitioned the country’s Supreme Court against the deal, citing a great ecological risk. They now have the support of a key government minister, Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, who has voiced her opposition in the past.

The pipeline agreement was secret and was signed near the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates in September 2020.It was signed between the Europe-Asia Pipeline Company (EAPC), an Israeli government-owned corporation, and MED-RED Land. Bridge, a company owned by both Israel and the United Arab Emirates. The terms of the agreement have been kept confidential.

“For decades, we have been aware of the terrible damages from the use of oil, gas and coal,” according to Professor Einat Aharonov, a geophysicist at the Institute of Earth Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an expert on fossil fuels. . “Israel cannot afford to sign agreements that encourage the use of oil, even if there are economic benefits,” he said.

“Environmental considerations are very clear, while the long-term potential of the deal is not and raises a lot of questions,” said Michael Harari, former Israeli ambassador to Cyprus and policy officer at Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. . .

EAPC has a troubled track record. It has been responsible for several massive oil pipeline spills throughout Israel’s history. One such spill nearly destroyed Eilat’s coral reefs in the 1970s.

“EAPC has already demonstrated its problematic treatment of its plants and pipelines, and any oil transfers are risky, as the maintenance of pipelines in southern Israel is not up to the very old and rusty lines,” Aharonov said .

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Eilat Oil Transportation Facility Eilat Oil Transportation Facility

Eilat Oil Transportation Facility

(Photo: Yair Sagi)

The pipelines that currently transport oil within Israel to the Mediterranean and are maintained by EAPC are largely eroded and, at certain points, the side walls have almost completely disintegrated. This makes it a disaster waiting to happen, even before the new agreement takes effect, barring its annulment.

For the Emirates, the deal provides a shorter path for its oil to the West. But it is not the only alternative, which makes its cancellation perhaps less important. Egypt offers similar paths. Furthermore, according to data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), most of the UAE’s gas exports go to Asia, making the West a less important market.

The normalization of relations between the two countries, as part of the larger Abraham Accords that established relations between Israel and four Arab and African states, saw the signing of many multi-million dollar agreements between Israeli and Emirati companies. “Any agreement between Israel and the Arab states is important,” Harari said.

“It is clear that with the excitement surrounding the Abraham Accords, energy will play a role because this is what the UAE has to offer Israel,” said Dr. Elai Rettig, a professor in the University’s Department of Political Studies. Bar-Ilan. . “This agreement is primarily financial and does not really serve any important political interest for either party.”

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An aerial view of the oil storage containers (in the foreground) of the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) in the mountains near the Red Sea port city of Eilat in Israel, and (in the background) the Jordanian coast south of Aqaba on February 10, 2021An aerial view of the oil storage containers (in the foreground) of the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) in the mountains near the Red Sea port city of Eilat in Israel, and (in the background) the Jordanian coast south of Aqaba on February 10, 2021

Oil storage containers of Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) in the mountains near the port city of Eilat on Israel’s Red Sea

(Photo: AFP)

Initially, its proponents hailed the deal as an important deal that strengthens newly founded relationships. “Little by little, we have seen that there are other problems that sustain the relations, so that even if the agreement is canceled, the UAE will still be present in Israel’s energy sector,” added Rettig, “every deal and every connection that is made. , the more the pipeline deal marginalizes. “

In September this year, Israel’s Delek Drilling closed a deal by selling a quarter of its stake in the Eastern Mediterranean Tamar gas field to Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Petroleum.

For Israel, the energy agreements with the Arab countries strike a chord that recalls the national trauma of the 1973 oil crisis that followed the 1973 Yom Kippur War that it fought with several Arab countries. There was a rush to reach an agreement immediately after normalization as a symbol of the new links. As ties deepen and Israel feels more secure in its stability, it might be time to let other considerations, such as important environmental ones, take precedence. The agreement positions Israel as a means of transportation for Emirati oil, not as a consumer of it.

“Geostrategically, Israel gets its oil from the post-Soviet region,” Rettig said. “It is clear that the boycott against Israel is long over, but seeing Arab oil in Israel is very significant on a declarative level.”

The initial excitement derived from the new relationships could have clouded the judgment of those involved. Voices against the deal making valid arguments about its environmental ramifications were clouded by the hype for peace in the Middle East.

Relationships are likely to have to endure cancellation or perhaps a downsizing of the deal. As a result of an internal Israeli debate, the UAE will not view its possible override as a political issue between the countries. “The cancellation will not affect relations,” assessed Elharrar.

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Bennett with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain (left) and the Minister of State of the United Arab Emirates (right)Bennett with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain (left) and the Minister of State of the United Arab Emirates (right)

Prime Minister Bennett, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister on the left and the UAE Minister for State Affairs on the right.

(Photo: Avi Ohayon)

This will lead to environmental considerations. “Israel should not risk its natural wonders, the whole process of transporting oil is risky, which is possibly worth risking rare corals or drinking water in southern Israel,” Aharonov said.

“(With) the strengthening of ties between the two countries and the potential for relations, the cancellation of the agreement will not cause harm,” said Harari, “The converging interests that brought the two together transcend any agreement, regardless of how big it is. “.

In the long term, energy cooperation between Israel and the Gulf states has the potential to change the region. “To what extent can the Gulf connect to the eastern Mediterranean in the field of energy and create something even greater,” Harari said.

“This could significantly weaken Iran’s position in the Gulf and has not only economic benefits but significant strategic and political significance,” he added.

If the oil deal is annulled, it looks like relations could weather the setback and the environment will likely benefit.

“Rejecting the deal will not be a geopolitical disaster and politics should not be factored into energy deals,” Rettig summarized. “The considerations must be environmental and financial.”

The article was written by Keren Setton and reprinted with permission from The media line.

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