EU looks to Israel as it battles Russian energy ‘blackmail’

The EU is pushing ahead with efforts to boost its energy co-operation with Israel as it battles Russian energy “blackmail”, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said on Tuesday.

The EU has been searching for ways to cut its dependency on Russian fossil fuels since Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, and Israel, which discovered large offshore gas resources in recent years, is keen to help the bloc diversify its energy supplies.

Von der Leyen said the EU was continuing preparations on two “major” infrastructure projects designed to bolster energy links with Israel: a gas and hydrogen pipeline in the eastern Mediterranean; and an underwater power cable linking Israel to Cyprus and Greece.

“Since the beginning of the war, Russia has deliberately cut off its gas supplies to Poland, to Bulgaria, to Finland, to Dutch companies, to Danish companies, in retaliation for our support to Ukraine,” von der Leyen said during a visit to a university in southern Israel.

“But the Kremlin’s behaviour only strengthened our resolve to break free of our dependency on Russian fossil fuels.”

Mario Draghi, left, and Naftali Bennett at the Israeli prime minister’s office in Jerusalem on Tuesday © AP

Israel’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett, also discussed energy co-operation with Italian prime minister Mario Draghi, who made his own visit to Israel on Tuesday.

But in a sign of the complexities of developing Mediterranean gas resources, Bennett also criticised Lebanon’s leaders for “unnecessary disputes”. This follows a row between the two countries, which do not have diplomatic relations, over a contested offshore gasfield.

A US state department official, Amos Hochstein, is in Beirut this week to help mediate the dispute, after a vessel operated by London-listed Greek oil and gas explorer Energean arrived at the Karish gasfield on June 5. The company said its gas rig was scheduled to start production there in the third quarter. While Israel says the field lies in an area recognised by the UN as its exclusive economic zone, Lebanon says the area is disputed.

US-brokered talks between the two countries stalled last year after Lebanese negotiators proposed a new maritime border, which significantly expanded the territory it claimed at Israel’s expense.

Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hizbollah, said earlier this month that his group was ready to act if Israel began drilling before an agreement was reached.

The powerful political and paramilitary force has fought several wars with Israel, and Nasrallah has previously said that he would protect Lebanon’s economic rights by force.

Israel’s energy and defence ministers said last week that the rig was in Israeli waters, and would not pump gas from disputed territory. But they warned that Israel “prioritises the protection of its strategic assets, and is prepared to defend them and the security of its infrastructure”.

Reports in Lebanese media suggest that the government was preparing to offer a compromise to resolve the dispute, that could include dropping the claim to the expanded maritime border or swapping Karish for another nearby field, Qana.

Asked about the possibility of a swap, Hochstein told US-backed Al Hurra TV that Lebanon is “looking at what kind of a compromise can be reached that the Israelis can agree to and not feel like [they are] being pushed into something against their interests, while still preserving the most important part of Lebanon’s interests.”

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