Israel is preparing to activate an offshore gas field near its disputed maritime border with Lebanon, with the aim of boosting energy exports to Europe, but is threatening further tensions with its northern neighbor.
Israel and Lebanon, still technically at war, have been in on-off US-brokered talks since 2020 to demarcate their Mediterranean border, which could allow both countries to boost offshore natural gas exploration. .
But the Karish gas field has emerged as a potential pitfall.
Israel says Karish, licensed to London-listed Energean, is entirely in its exclusive economic zone.
Lebanon has claimed that part of the field is falling into its own waters.
The powerful Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah launched unarmed drones at Karish in July after Energean fielded a production ship. It has threatened attacks if Israel continues its extraction.
Israeli officials have consistently said Hezbollah’s threats against Karish would not deter production, stressing that control of the field was not in question.
“Israel believes it is both possible and necessary to agree on a maritime border between Lebanon and Israel in a way that will serve the interests of the citizens of both countries,” Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a statement on Monday.
“The production of gas from the Karish rig is not linked to these negotiations, and production of gas from the rig will start as soon as possible,” he added.
For Israel, ensuring the production of Karish is critical to achieving its goal of increasing energy exports to Europe, which seeks to fill the supply gaps caused by declining Russian sales due to the war in Ukraine.
“We are going to be part of the effort to replace Russian gas in Europe,” said Lapid, who stood next to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin last week.
Israel aimed to supply “10 percent” of what Moscow supplied to Europe ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Lapid said.
– Tensions in Lebanon –
Israel’s options to boost gas exports to Europe are complex and challenging.
But experts agree that the best short-term option is to ramp up sales to Egypt, allowing Israeli gas to liquefy before shipping to Europe.
Israel and Egypt signed an agreement until June to work together on that effort.
But if Israel wants to send more gas from its Leviathan and Tamar fields to Egypt while meeting its domestic energy needs, it must “have stable production of Karish,” Israeli gas industry specialist Gina Cohen told TNZT.
She said Israeli plans to increase exports to Europe also depend on expanding the capacity of the existing pipeline to Egypt.
Despite “Lapid talk,” Israel “isn’t there yet,” she said.
Israel’s longer-term gas export goals could be met by building a pipeline to Turkey, a scenario with brighter prospects amid warming ties between Ankara and Israel.
But officials estimate this could take up to three years and cost $1.5 billion.
Another option is the EastMed project, a proposed seabed pipeline linking Israel to Cyprus and Greece, but there are also concerns about the cost and viability of that project.
During the US-brokered talks, Lebanon initially demanded 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) in the disputed sea area, but then asked for another 1,430 square kilometers, including part of the Karish field.
Beirut changed its position in June, telling US envoy Amos Hochstein it was willing to withdraw its demand for territory where Israel wanted to extract gas in the short term.
But Hezbollah’s threats against Karish have persisted, and former Israeli general Amir Avivi warned that the risk of hostilities is possible even if both governments want to see increased, stable gas production.
“Hezbollah is actually using the Karish issue and this maritime dispute to show that they are the ones who care about Lebanon’s interests,” he said.