Egypt Signals That $15 Billion Gas Deal Will Hinge on Israeli Debt Concessions

Israel, however, insists no understandings to forfeit the $1.8 billion in compensation have been reached

File photo: Tamar Israeli gas-drill platform in the Mediterranean Sea.

Egyptian officials have signaled that a giant $15 billion deal to buy natural gas from Israel hinges on Israel’s backing down from rulings awarding it $1.8 billion or more of compensation when Egypt cut off its supply of gas to Israel in 2012.

In Israel, however, officials deny that there has been any agreement on compensation. “Israel hasn’t given up on the debt and the matter did not come up for discussion during talks on the Leviathan export deal to Egypt that was signed [last] week,” Israel’s Ministry of Energy said.

Likewise, state-owned Israel Electric Corporation, which won arbitration in 2015 awarding it $1.76 billion for the loss of Egyptian gas, similarly denied any concessions had been made. “The company is not aware of any concessions on the debt. There won’t be any backing down on the debt. The company continues to seek to collect it,” IEC said in a statement

At issue is a signed agreement announced by Texas-based Noble Energy and Israel’s Delek Drilling a week ago to export 64 billion cubic meters of gas over 10 years from the Tamar and Leviathan reservoirs to the Egyptian company Dolphinus.

The deal was celebrated in Israel as the first step to wider energy relations between Israel and Egypt to pool the two countries’ gas reserves and export them jointly to Europe or other markets. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed it as a way of cementing strategic ties with Cairo.

But the reaction to the agreement in Egypt has been cooler and top officials signaled it would be contingent on resolving the IEC arbitration ruling. In addition, earlier this month East Mediterranean Gas, the company that built the pipeline to deliver the Egyptian gas to Israel, won a preliminary ruling from a Cairo-based arbitrator for compensation of $1.03 billion.

“We reached an agreement to receive part of the gas in Egypt via its pipelines and this is part of the resolution to the arbitration,” Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail told reporters in Cairo last Thursday when asked about the EMG case.

He said an understanding had also been reached with IEC but declined to give more details.

His remarks echoed those of Egyptian Energy Minister Tariq al-Mulla who was quoted last week by Turkey’s Anadolu news agency as saying the gas deal hinged on unspecified “arbitration between the two countries” being settled.

An international arbitration court in Geneva ruled in 2015 that Egyptian state energy companies must compensate IEC after Egyptian gas supplies were cut off — first by a spate of terrorist attacks on EMG’s pipeline and then in 2012 by Cairo’s decision to break the contract.

The ruling caused Cairo to break off talks about importing gas from Israel. However, they were apparently revived sometime during 2016 on parallel governmental and business tracks. Last September, the Egyptians said the two sides had agreed that IEC would forgive $500 million of the debt it’s owed.

A senior Israeli government source, who asked not to be identified, told TheMarker that he didn’t expect Egypt would agree to pay the debt and compared it to Israel’s refusal to pay the Iranian government compensation decided upon by an international arbitrator.

In 2016, Switzerland’s highest court ordered Israel to pay Iran around $1.1 billion plus interest in a decades-old dispute over a secretive oil pipeline company predating the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The source said that Egypt’s failure to pay the compensation wouldn’t affect electricity rates in Israel since IEC had already written off the debt as unrecoverable and had incorporated it into rates over the last six years.

In response to news of the Israeli-Egyptian gas deal last week, Cypriot Energy Minister Georgios Lakkotrypis said he expected to sign a similar pact with Egypt in the next few weeks to export gas. The island’s Aphrodite field is close to Leviathan and is also owned by Noble and Delek.

However, Israeli sources cast doubt on an imminent deal, saying that the startement was designed to distract attention from Egypt’s closer relations with israel. “They have been talking about a deal for Aphrodite with the Egyptians for years and it’s not happening,” said one source, who asked not to be named.