BEERSHEBA: The European Union wants to strengthen its energy cooperation with Israel in light of Russia’s use of gas supplies to “blackmail” its members over the Ukraine conflict, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said on Tuesday.

Her remarks came as Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, also visiting Israel, said Rome was seeking to boost gas supplies from Israel as EU members eye options to diminish their reliance on Russian energy.

“The Kremlin has used our dependency on Russian fossil fuels to blackmail us,” von der Leyen said in a speech at the Ben Gurion University in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba.

“Since the beginning of the war, Russia has deliberately cut off its gas supplies to Poland, Bulgaria and Finland, and Dutch and Danish companies, in retaliation for our support to Ukraine.” But Moscow’s conduct “only strengthens our resolve to break free of our dependence on Russian fossil fuels,” she said, noting the EU was “exploring ways to step up our energy cooperation with Israel,” with work on an underwater power cable and a gas pipeline in the eastern Mediterranean.

Israel exports gas to Egypt, some of which is then liquefied and shipped to Europe. A significant increase in gas exports would require major long-term infrastructure investments.

In talks with Energy Minister Karine Elharrar on Monday, von der Leyen reiterated “the EU need for Israeli gas,” the minister’s spokesperson said. The spokesperson said there had been talks since March on establishing the legal framework to enable more Israeli gas exports to Europe via Egypt.

Another option would be the EastMed project, a proposal for a seafloor pipeline linking Israel to Greece and Italy via Cyprus. But US President Joe Biden’s administration has questioned the viability of the project, given its huge cost and the time it would take to complete.

Speaking alongside Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem, Draghi said Italy and Israel were “working together on the use of gas resources from the eastern Mediterranean and for the development of renewable energy”.

“We want to reduce our dependence on Russian gas, and accelerate the energy transition towards the climate goals we have set ourselves,” Draghi added.

Bennett described Europe’s need for alternative gas supplies as “good news.” An Israel-Turkey pipeline project, estimated to require three years and $1.5 billion, is another option to get Israeli gas to European markets.

Bennett directed fresh criticism at Israel’s northern neighbour, Lebanon, with which it remains technically at war.

The two countries have a long-running maritime border dispute and Washington has been brokering talks aimed at demarcating a border and allowing both sides to ramp up exploration. Lebanon had backed away from the talks, but Israel has urged Beirut to re-engage.

“I look forward to the day Lebanon will decide to take advantage of the natural gas in its economic water,” said Bennett. “It’s a shame that Lebanon’s leadership, instead of extracting gas for its people, is busy fighting internally and externally,” he added.

Israel is estimated to have gas reserves of at least one trillion cubic metres, with domestic use over the next three decades expected to total no more than 300 billion.

Von der Leyen was due to hold talks with Bennett later Tuesday, before travelling on to Egypt.

Published in Dawn,June 15th, 2022

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