Jordan Refutes Netanyahu's Claims of Israeli Gas Diplomacy

Israel's neighbors don't buy Netanyahu's vision of strengthening ties via natural gas trade.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Yuval Steinitz, December 8, 2015.
Olivier Fitoussi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence Tuesday that gas exports will strengthen Israel’s ties with Arab states was thrown into doubt by a Jordanian statement that there are currently no gas negotiations or projects between the two countries.

The Jordanian statement came only two days after Egypt froze negotiations over importing gas from Israel.

Netnyahu told the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee Tuesday that “supplying gas to [Israel’s neighbors] adds another layer of stability that is in our interest, even when it’s in their interest. This is of particular importance to us in light of the commerce of extremist Islamic groups.”

But Jordanian Energy Minister Ibrahim Saif seemed to contradict the prime minister’s words Tuesday when he said that “there are currently no negotiations or projects related to importing gas from Israel to Jordan; everything is frozen at the stage of the letter of intent signed by Jordan and Noble Energy.”

Saif’s announcement, which came two days after Egypt froze negotiations over importing gas from Israel, casts serious doubts on Netanyahu’s statement that gas exports would strengthen Israel’s ties with with its neighbors.

Unlike Egypt, which is simply trying to pressure Israel to waive the $1.76 billion fine an arbitrator ordered Egyptian firms to pay the Israel Electric Corporation, Jordan’s decision stems from deep public opposition to Israeli gas imports, because “importing gas from Israel means occupation,” as Jordanian demonstrators recently chanted in Amman. The Israeli government would earn more than $8 billion by selling 15 billion cubic meters of gas to Jordan (the volume mentioned in the letter of intent) – money which, in the demonstrators’ view, would be used to “strengthen the Israeli army and finance the occupation.”

It’s not clear when or if Jordan will alter Tuesday’s decision. Currently, it has a five-year contract with Shell to import 250 million cubic meters a day of liquefied natural gas from Qatar and it plans to issue additional tenders for LNG.

Off Haifa coast, oil rig at enormous Leviathan natural gas field.
Albatross

The recent decisions by both Jordan and Egypt are enough to poke holes in the security doctrine Netanyahu used to justify his resort to Article 52, a legal provision that lets the economy minister overrule the antitrust commissioner for reasons of foreign policy or national security. Netanyahu adduced two main arguments: that gas exports could help consolidate ties with Arab states, and that a gas-exporting country would be less threatened by boycotts.

Both claims lack any factual basis, at best, and at worst border on fraud. Israel’s relations with the two Arab countries it has peace treaties with, Egypt and Jordan, don’t rely on oil or gas (Egypt unhesitatingly broke signed agreements with Israel over both commodities,) but on security interests, economic dreams, a promise to solve the Palestinian problem and American pressure. Egypt cooperates with Israel on counterterrorism with no connection to natural gas, while Jordanian-Israeli security cooperation began even before the peace treaty was signed.

If anything threatens this agreement, it isn’t Jordan’s decision not to import gas from Israel, but what Jordan terms Israel’s efforts to take over the Temple Mount. Even if Israel offered Jordan the gas deal of its dreams, it wouldn’t alter Jordan’s national interests, appease Jordanian opponents of economic cooperation with Israel or paper over the rift on the Palestinian issue.

What’s true of Jordan is also true of the Palestinians, who wouldn’t abandon their aspirations for an independent state for all the gas in Israel’s reserves. Nor can Israeli gas provide leverage for relations with either the Gulf States – which also produce gas and are competing with Israel for European markets – or North African countries, where Algeria has a huge advantage over Israel.

Netanyahu’s claim that supplying Israeli gas to poor Arab countries might help stabilize them is also dubious, if not downright ludicrous. Libya and Yemen both have gas, but that didn’t prevent the civil wars in which both are now embroiled. Algeria, the largest gas producer in the region, had a civil war in the 1990s that killed over 150,000 people. And Iraq certainly hasn’t found gas to be a political stabilizer.

Granted, there’s one potential regional client whose relations with Israel really might improve if Israel sold it gas; it’s named Turkey. But it’s unlikely that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is currently looking for ways to rehabilitate Turkey’s relationship with Israel. Moreover, Ankara signed a memorandum of understanding on importing gas from Qatar just last week, and is even building a pipeline, should Russia freeze its gas exports to Turkey.

As for the claim that gas exports can protect a country from boycotts, one wonders how Russian President Vladimir Putin would react to that. Russia is currently under American and European sanctions, despite exporting more than half its gas. Maybe Iranian leader Ali Khamenei could be convinced of this argument, but only after sanctions are lifted from Iran, another huge gas exporter which apparently thought, like Netanyahu, that exporting gas and oil would protect it. And what about the sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq for 12 years?

Gas has never yet protected any country against sanctions, and the European Union is unlikely to rescind its decision to label settlement produce because of Israeli gas exports.

Both Israel’s ties with Arab countries and forestalling anti-Israel boycotts depend not on approving the government’s deal with the gas companies or on contracts to export the gas, but on the diplomatic deal Israel offers the Palestinians. Any attempt to portray the gas as an alternative to a two-state solution in opening channels of access to Arab states is nothing but a bluff.