How Dare Egypt Discover Gas?

Al-Sissi stole nothing from Israel, and he can provide it with a neighbor that is in slightly better economic shape than it was before the discovery of gas - and yet no Israeli leader bothered to congratulate him.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

No Israeli leader bothered to pick up the phone and congratulate Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi on the natural gas discovery that could extricate his country from some of its economic woes. That is because Egypt, which fights terror and is a partner in the battle against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, “betrayed” Israel. It discovered an artery of life in the sea and destroyed the Israeli dream of making money. It made the stock market dive and shook up “our” gas companies, which until a moment ago were trying every trick to rob the till.

Moreover, by having the chutzpah to discover gas in its waters, Egypt also rudely interfered in Israel’s internal affairs. It forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop his ostrich-like race to approve the government's proposed deal with the gas companies and instead look those firms right in the eye. What Sheshinski [who headed a panel on natural gas policy], MK Arye Dery, the virtual opposition and the “hostile media” could not do, Egypt did with its natural gas discovery, which is already looking like an economic Yom Kippur War — no less. The stab of the gas drill also popped the balloon of strategic reasoning that wrapped the natural gas plan in deceptive warmth.

At first Netanyahu relied on his ally, Iran, to sell the strategy of protecting the gas companies. That is, if the signing of the nuclear agreement with Iran cannot be stopped, at least we should take advantage of it to spur the approval of the gas plan. The nuclear agreement, Netanyahu said in a speech, will bring a fearsome and terrible competitor into the gas market, which will bring down the price of natural gas and reduce Israel’s income. And so we must hurry and approve the gas plan.

Quite some level of chutzpah and contempt for the public is needed to make this argument. Do the consumers of natural gas, among them the European countries and Turkey, not know that cheap Iranian gas is waiting around the corner? Will any of them really commit to the high Israeli price when in another year or two the price of gas will come down? And what remains unsaid is that Egypt in any case opposes purchases of gas or oil from Iran; that Jordan’s relationship with Iran is cool to frozen, while Turkey, which is defined in Israel as a hostile country, in any case already buys gas from Iran and Russia.

But who says there has to be a connection between facts and decisions? If the plan needs to be sold to the public, enemies may be enlisted, deceptions disseminated and even threats made. Anything goes. Netanyahu counted on the fact that anything connected to Iran, nuclear or natural gas, captivates the heart and blinds the eye.

And what if the nuclear agreement had not been signed, and Iran had not threatened to compete with Israeli gas – would the gas companies have offered Israel a lower price and better conditions? According to Netanyahu’s logic, Iran without a nuclear agreement that puts the gas companies’ profits at risk is preferable to an Iran with a nuclear agreement that postpones the security threat for a long time.

True, Egypt was a potential customer; last year official Egyptian spokesmen were already laying the groundwork for the signing of an agreement by which Israel would supply gas to Egypt. But “gas” and “Israel” don’t digest well in the Egyptian stomach. Especially after Hosni Mubarak was put on trial for selling cheap gas to Israel when Egypt needed that gas itself.

Before the discovery of the gas, people in Egypt talked about the risk to national security caused by dependence on Israeli gas, and that gas would put Israel in a position of strength vis a vis Egypt. Now al-Sissi can breathe a little easier. He will have gas of his own. He can bring in investors, reduce the deficit, pay off debts and create thousands more jobs. We are allowed to be happy for them.

Al-Sissi stole nothing from Israel, and he can provide it with a neighbor that is in slightly better economic shape than it was before the discovery of gas. That is no small thing.

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