UAE Oil Deal Is 'Strategic, Environmental Threat' to Israel

A paper published by Tel Aviv University's Institute of National Security Studies argues the threat the Red Sea pipeline poses to Israel's security warrants cancelling the deal

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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An oil vessel by Eilat, this week.
An oil vessel by Eilat, this week.Credit: Sassi Horesh
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

A deal to transport oil from the United Arab Emirates through Israel to Europe should be terminated because of the threat it poses to Israel's security, a paper published by Tel Aviv University’s Institute of National Security Studies argued.

The paper, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz, was sent on Thursday to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, the National Security Council, and the defense and foreign ministries. It represents the official view of the institute’s researchers.

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The paper lists several reasons for freezing the deal, which calls for transporting the oil by pipeline from the Red Sea port of Eilat to the Mediterranean port of Ashkelon. The reasons include a fear of attacks from Iran or the Gaza Strip on the oil tankers that would be visiting the Red Sea frequently, with no security; the threat to coastal desalination plants that ensure Israel’s supply of drinking water; the view that the government didn’t go through the proper administrative process before approving the agreement; and that the deal may undermine Israel’s relations with Egypt.

“The benefits of the EAPC deal are significantly smaller than the strategic and environmental threats it poses,” the paper summed up, referring to the Europe Asia Pipeline Co., which owns the pipeline. “Is it proper for oil that won’t be used by Israelis to endanger them?”

Consequently, it added, “The necessary conclusion is that the new government should postpone implementation of the agreement until it thoroughly considers all its ramifications, including security risks.”

The deal, whose terms have yet to be made public, was officially signed between two commercial companies, EAPC and Med-Red Land Bridge. But it required government approval, which it received in late 2020 from the previous government, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu.

However, the paper said, this approval was granted “without comprehensive staff work being done to examine its implications ... The process that led to the EAPC deal wasn’t conducted according to the basic rules of good government with regard to decision making, and therefore, it’s unreasonable for the new Israeli government to retroactively approve the move.”

The people involved in drafting it include the institute’s managing director, Brig. Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel; former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot; Dr. Shira Efron; and Foreign Ministry officials. They are the latest in a long list of people who have voiced opposition to the deal, including many scientists and environmental groups and some ministers.

If the deal is implemented, the number of oil tankers arriving in Eliat would increase significantly, from a handful a year to dozens. Each such ship can hold up to 270,000 tons of oil. The amount of oil stored at EAPC’s facilities in Ashkelon prior to being loaded on tankers for shipment to Europe would also balloon.

“Brisk traffic in oil tankers making their way to Israel through the Red Sea would entail significant security risks, since the Red Sea has recently become an explosive theater where several attacks on vessels have already occurred,” the paper warned. “The Iranian regime, which is skilled at employing its agents in the region, finances and operates sabotage units to attacks vessels in the region.”

Another risk is that Palestinians in Gaza might launch missiles at the tankers. During the mini-war with Hamas in Gaza this past May, the paper noted, a gasoline storage facility in Ashkelon owned by the Energy Infrastructures company “burned for around 20 hours after a direct hit by a rocket from Gaza.” Following this strike, Ashkelon residents “complained of breathing problems and other medical complications.”

As for the desalination plants, a Red Sea oil spill would pollute the water flowing into Eilat’s plant, reducing the supply of water to local residents and nearby farmers. There’s also a risk of spills along the Mediterranean coast when the oil is loaded onto tankers for transshipment to Europe, and such spills would damage the desalination plants at Ashkelon and Ashdod, which are not far from EAPC’s facilities.

Haaretz has also obtained a copy of Eisenkot’s remarks during internal discussions prior to the paper’s drafting. In explaining his objections to the deal, he said, “Israel doesn’t secure shipping lanes, except during extreme wartime situations like the Second Lebanon War. In recent years, the Red Sea has heated up and the risk of Iranian attacks on ships with an Israeli affiliation has risen.

“In Ashkelon, too, increasing the scope of oil transport poses a large risk because of the southern district’s explosiveness,” as evidenced by May’s fighting with Hamas, he continued. “Common sense seems to dictate a need to examine the agreement’s benefits in light of the risk it poses. What’s evident from this whole story is the lack of anyone’s hand on the steering wheel, and a comprehensive look is needed.”

The paper also supported Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg’s concerns about the deal’s environmental threat to the Gulf of Eilat. The vast increase in the number of tankers unloading their oil in Eilat “could mortally endanger Eilat’s unique coral reefs,” it said.

“In the worst-case scenario of a deliberate attack by hostile parties on tankers anchoring in the gulf – since if the agreement is implemented, there will always be a tanker anchored in the Gulf of Eilat – hundreds of thousands of tons of crude oil could be spilled into the sea and damage the environment to an extent impossible to quantify, which is considered priceless,” it added, with the word “priceless” written in English.

The ministry has rejected an environmental impact survey conducted by EAPC, saying it failed to meet the ministry’s requirements.

Yet another problem, the paper said, is that the deal positions Israel as a country encouraging the use of fossil fuels at a time when much of the world is trying to reduce fossil fuel consumption to fight climate change. “The EAPC deal doesn’t mesh with Israel’s obligations to the international community or Israel’s long-term economic and international interest in being part of the climate conversation, which is an entry ticket into the new world,” it said.

Finally, there is the impact on Israel’s foreign relations. Until recently, there were fears that canceling the deal would undermine Israel’s relations with the UAE, but Emirati officials have publicly said that isn’t the case. Moreover, the Foreign Ministry has retracted its earlier assessment that canceling the deal would undermine the country’s credibility.

But going through with the deal could undermine Israel’s relationship with Europe, the paper warned, “because the EAPC pipeline poses competition to another pipeline that transports oil from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, the Egyptian SUMED pipeline, which has existed for more than 40 years already.”

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