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JERUSALEM: The first cargo ships from Dubai that docked last year in the Mediterranean port of Haifa were greeted with a celebration in Israel. Flags were fluttering. The journalists have gathered. The Prime Minister walked on the pier and delivered a speech on the fruits of peace.
There was no fanfare, however, when tankers began arriving at Israel’s smaller Red Sea port of Eilat as part of a deal with Emirati partners. Rather than washing machines and cleaning supplies for consumers, ships unloaded oil to be transferred by pipeline through Israel to the Mediterranean.
The companies involved claim that this land bridge is the shortest, most efficient and cost-effective route to transport oil from the Gulf to the West. But the risks to the environment are far too great, say their opponents who hope to end the deal.
About a month after Israel normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates last September, Israel’s state-owned Europe-Asia Pipeline Company (EAPC) announced the new collaboration.
The agreement was signed in Abu Dhabi with MED-RED Land Bridge, a company with Emirati and Israeli owners. The then US Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, was in attendance.
The roots of the EAPC lie in the Persian Gulf. It was first established as a joint venture between Israel and Iran in 1968, when the two countries were friends. This partnership collapsed after the 1979 revolution that brought the Ayatollahs to power.
Israel’s gas pipeline still operates in both directions but well below capacity in recent years, energy experts say. With the United Arab Emirates taking on the role once occupied by Iran, the EAPC hopes to increase quantities by “tens of millions of tonnes per year.”
The influx of ships docked along Eilat’s fragile coral reefs and the large quantities of oil passing through Israel have outraged the country’s biggest conservationists.
They think of an oil spill in February that blackened much of Israel’s Mediterranean coast with tar. And in 2014, one of EAPC’s pipelines ruptured, spilling 5 million liters of crude oil into a desert nature reserve.
“Most of the details (of the agreement) are confidential by law. We know a little about it, but the little bit makes us very anxious, ”said Noa Yayon, head of the legal department of the Society for the Protection of Nature.
Eilat’s coral reef is unique in that it has been shown to be more resilient to climate change, as many reefs around the world are dying. It is also a great tourist attraction.
But its proximity to the port means that even the smallest leak from an oil tanker would cause significant, possibly irreversible damage, Yayon said.
“We are of course very satisfied with the current geopolitical status with the Arab countries of our region, but we do not think that it should come with super specific risks for our environment,” she said. “We think we better promote business with these countries based on clean energy and not on oil.”
Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel sent a letter to Israel’s national security adviser last Tuesday saying “warning lights are already blinking” and called for the deal to be canceled.
Too much has been decided behind closed doors and remains secret, she said.
The EAPC has not made the details of the deal public.
“From a rate of six tankers per year, we anticipate an increase to more than 50 tankers per year docking at Eilat,” Gamliel wrote. “The continuation of this agreement will be a tragedy for generations, whether it be any incidents that may arise or a scenario of war.”
Gamliel is being replaced by the swearing-in of the country’s new government, and his successor on Monday called the deal a mistake and said the government should oppose it.
The EAPC said the new company is part of its routine operations and meets the highest international standards. In addition, the wider geopolitical gains cannot be ignored.
“Israel stands to benefit greatly from the agreement, which will strengthen the Israeli economy and its international position, as well as guarantee its energy independence and security,” the company said in a statement.
The Society for the Protection of Nature and other groups have asked the Supreme Court of Israel for a temporary order freezing the agreement. Yayon said the state is due to present its official position in the coming days.
The Finance Ministry, which oversees the EAPC, declined to comment due to the public hearing of the case.
A representative of National Holding of the United Arab Emirates, owner of Petromal, one of the owners of MED-RED Land Bridge, did not immediately comment on the matter.