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EU chief, Italian PM in Israel for energy talks

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is to meet Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Tuesday, with talks due to focus "in particular on energy cooperation"
— Jerusalem (AFP)

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi landed in Israel on Monday as the EU seeks to wean itself off Russian fossil fuel imports.

Both leaders were due to hold energy talks in Israel, which has turned from a natural gas importer into an exporter in recent years because of major offshore finds.

Von der Leyen was to meet Foreign Minister Yair Lapid later Monday and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Tuesday, with talks expected to focus "in particular on energy cooperation", a commission statement said.

Draghi, on his first Middle East trip since taking office last year, will also discuss energy and food security during his two-day trip, Italian media reported.

Both leaders will on Tuesday meet Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

A floating production storage and offloading vessel operated by Energean Plc and set to produce gas for Israel passes through Egypt's Suez Canal in a picture dated June 5, 2022

The EU this month formally adopted a ban on most Russian oil imports, its toughest sanctions yet over the war in Ukraine. Von der Leyen has suggested the bloc end its dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, including gas, by 2027.

Draghi and other EU leaders have warned European customers may need protection as energy costs continue to rise.

Israeli Energy Minister Karine Elharrar and other officials have said their country could help meet EU demand if it can deliver gas from its offshore reserves estimated at nearly 1,000 billion cubic metres.

Ahead of Von der Leyen's visit, European Commission spokeswoman Dana Spinant told reporters to "stay tuned for announcements that we are going to make on energy cooperation with Israel and other partners in the region".

- Export options -

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, during a ministerial meeting at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in Paris on June 9, 2022

For now, getting Israeli gas to Europe is fraught with challenges and would require major and long-term infrastructure investments.

With no pipeline linking its offshore fields to Europe, one option for now is piping natural gas to Egypt, where it could be liquified for export by ship to Europe.

Another possible scenario is building a pipeline to Turkey.

Israel's ties with Ankara have thawed after more than a decade of diplomatic rupture and experts have said Turkey's desire for joint energy projects has partly triggered its outreach to Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on June 12, 2022

That pipeline project would take $1.5 billion and two to three years to complete, according to Israel's former energy minister Yuval Steizitz, now an opposition lawmaker.

Option three is known as the EastMed project, a proposal for a seafloor pipeline linking Israel with Cyprus and Greece.

Experts have, however, raised concerns about the cost and viability of the project, while Israel has said it would like to see Italy sign on.

A spokesperson for Elharrar, the Israeli energy minister, told AFP on Monday there have been talks since March to create an agreement or legal framework to enable Israeli gas exports to Europe via Egypt.

Further complicating Israel's offshore gas production is a long-running maritime border dispute with Lebanon.

The neighbours technically remain at war but have agreed to US-mediated talks aimed at delineating the border to allow both countries to boost exploration.

Talks broke down last year but Israel has urged Lebanon to re-engage.

A UN ship patrols along the Israel-Lebanon border on October 14, 2020. The two countries, still technically at war, have held UN and US sponsored talks to settle a maritime border dispute and clear the way for oil and gas exploration

Tensions flared this month following a Lebanese claim that Israeli production was taking place in contested waters.

Israel countered that the area was located clearly south of the disputed zone.

The US envoy mediating the maritime border talks, Amos Hochstein, was due in Lebanon on Monday.

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