Stretching 254 kilometers from the Israeli resort town of Eilat to the Mediterranean port of Ashkelon, the Trans-Israel pipeline has a chequered past and a controversial present.
A relic of a long-vanished Middle East, in which Israel and Iran once cooperated to run the route, the pipeline has now become the centerpiece of another unexpected alliance, between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Since the UAE signed the Abraham Accords with Israel last August, ending years of hostile relations, Emirati and Israeli energy firms have been lobbying hard for the pipeline to become a new symbol of cooperation – and a new export route from the Gulf to Europe.
Yet, “It’s a project that raises a whole range of questions,” Dr Oded Eran, senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told Asia Times. “Environmental questions, economic questions, security and political questions.”
The pipeline skirts the delicate edges of the Palestinian Gaza Strip, the scene of recent intense fighting between Israel and Gaza-based militant group Hamas.
It also challenges the Suez Canal’s dominant role as the main route for Gulf oil to reach Europe, antagonizing Egypt.
Indeed, “It’s a very political pipeline,” regional oil and gas expert and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Charles Ellinas told Asia Times.“It creates problems in almost every direction.”
The pipeline was first constructed back in 1968 as a joint venture between Israel and its then ally, the Shah’s Iran.
The route runs from Eilat, on the Gulf of Aqaba at the northeastern end of the Red Sea, across Israel’s Negev desert to Ashkelon, on the Mediterranean coast just north of Gaza.
The idea was that this short route would bypass the Suez Canal – then under the control of an Egypt very hostile to Israel – while also allowing Iranian oil to reach European markets.
After the Shah was toppled, in 1979, the pipeline fell largely into disuse. It was then revived in 2003, when Russian oil began to be shipped in the opposite direction, from Ashkelon to Eilat and then on to markets in Asia.
The pipeline offered a short route that could be quicker than the overcrowded Suez Canal, while it was also cheaper given the expense of Canal transits and good terms offered by the Israel state-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Company (EAPC).
Yet, the pipeline has never had much capacity, while it has also been fraught with accidents.
“On at least three occasions, there have been leakages,” says Ellinas.
The most damaging was in 2014, when a breach led to a devastating oil spill in the Evrona Nature Reserve, a part of the Negev through which the pipeline runs.
“It still hasn’t been completely cleared up today,” says Eran.
Yet, soon after the UAE and Israel signed the Abraham Accords, a further deal was done between pipeline owners, namely the EAPC and Israeli-Emirati joint venture MED-RED Land Bridge.
In this deal, the UAE is to supply “tens of millions of tons per year” of oil from the UAE to the pipeline, according to an EAPC statement back in October.
“Israel is expected to benefit greatly,” the statement went on, helping to ensure the country’s “energy independence and security.”
While exact details of the deal remain secret, it will therefore likely see a major expansion in the amount of oil using the pipeline.
“From a rate of six tankers per year, we expect an increase to more than 50 tankers per year,” Israel’s former environment minister Gila Gamliel said in a letter to Israel’s National Security Advisor on June 8.
Rock and hard place
Gamliel made that statement, however, while also calling for the project’s cancellation on environmental grounds – a call that has now been reiterated by her successor in the new Israeli government, Tamar Zandberg.
Indeed, many Israelis are strongly opposed to the pipeline because of the potential threat of more and bigger spillages.
At the same time, an expansion of the route and its use would mean more tankers using Eilat – a major tourism destination for Israel – and Ashkelon, on Israel’s ecologically fragile Eastern Mediterranean coast.
Yet there are other reasons to doubt the project’s viability.
“Right now, whatever oil is moved from the Gulf to Europe mostly goes through the Suez Canal,” says Eran, “and I don’t think Egypt would be happy with this competition.”
This is particularly so after May’s blockage of the Suez Canal by the container ship Ever Givenshone a global spotlight on many of the canal’s limitations.
These include the fact that at present the Suez Canal is not large enough to safely take some fully loaded super-tankers.
Yet, now is not necessarily a good time for Israel to ruffle Egyptian feathers.
“Israel would like to improve relations with Egypt, especially on the whole question of Gaza,” says Eran.
Egypt took the lead in establishing the recent ceasefire that ended fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian Hamas fighters last month.
“The pipeline might also become a target,” says Ellinas, noting its proximity to Gaza. Since signing the Abraham Accords, “There have been quite fraught relations between the Palestinians and the UAE, too,” he adds.
Indeed, when the UAE applied to join the Cairo-based East Mediterranean Gas Forum last year, the Palestinian Authority – which is already a member – turned the UAE down.
Friends and enemies
Given all these complications, “If the pipeline were a purely commercial undertaking,” says Ellinas, “the environment lobby alone would probably have been able to stop it happening by now.”
Yet, the project remains – most likely, because if Israel were to cancel it, there could be major repercussions for its new peace deal with the UAE.
“The UAE is saying you can’t just scrap this,” says Ellinas, “as it’s part of the Abraham Accords.”
This has placed enormous pressure on Israeli authorities, who also want to cash in from their new relationship with the Emiratis.
“The UAE is very advanced in areas of great interest to Israel,” says Eran. “They are in space, for example, and are becoming a player in many other areas. There are great prospects for regional and economic cooperation.”
Faced with this conundrum, one response has been that of the Israeli state National Infrastructure Committee.
On June 15, this called for the pipeline to be exempted from environmental impact assessments.
“They are trying to avoid it being assessed and risking it being shut down,” says Ellinas.
This is unlikely to satisfy the powerful Israeli environmental lobby, however.
At the same time, “For all those countries that established relations with Israel recently,” says Eran, referring to Sudan, Bahrain and Morocco, which also signed the Abraham Accords, “this raises the question of how long and how deep they can really go.”
The question may now come down to a revived pipeline, snaking across the Israeli desert.