Politics intrudes in Israel’s gas strategy

Usually positioned on the margins of the Middle East’s complex energy politics, Israel now is a legitimate player in its own right. More than a decade ago, large natural-gas fields were discovered off Israel’s north coast in the Mediterranean. Since then, it has scrambled to determine exactly how the gas will make its way to Europe, principally, but also to other markets in Africa. For compared with the traditional energy politics of its neighbors, Israel has many more issues to contend with.

The French energy conglomerate Total highlighted the issues last month when its chief executive, Patrick Pouyanné, told the Financial Times that Israel was “too complex” for investment. Pouyanné further explained that Total was unwilling to put its other relationships in the region at risk by inking fresh deals with Israel.

This should be no surprise, as Total likely still wants to partner with Iran in a gas-exploration deal that has now been put on hold because of renewed US sanctions. Additionally, the company has been working closely with Lebanon to explore that country’s offshore gas potential in the eastern Mediterranean.

There are almost certainly additional pressures on the company that its CEO doesn’t want to mention. Over the past decade, boycott activists have been successful in pressuring European companies to end business relationships in Israel.

As a consequence, the French company Systra, for example, pulled out of the Jerusalem light-rail project, while the British security company G4S ended its business in Israel. That is just the tip of the iceberg.

Given the high stakes surrounding Israel’s natural-gas fields, Total cannot want to face the prospect of a civil-society boycott that would almost certainly be backed by the movement’s like-minded allies in Lebanon and state-inspired ones in Iran. This is not to say that the movement, by itself, is in a position to inflict significant damage on the Israeli economy. Rather, it can be a massive irritant to business. It has the power to make deals that much more “complex” and bothersome for companies that wish to do business in or with Israel.

Given the high stakes surrounding Israel’s natural-gas fields, Total cannot want to face the prospect of a civil-society boycott that would almost certainly be backed by the movement’s like-minded allies in Lebanon and state-inspired ones in Iran

For example, seeing its bet in Iran fall to pieces, one might suppose that Total should want to consider changing sides and working closely…

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