Russia's Israeli Oil Bond

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

Also published by United Press International (UPI)

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November 4, 2002

Last week, Russia and Israel - erstwhile bitter Cold War enemies - have agreed to make use of Israel's neglected oil pipeline, known as the Tipline. The conduit, an Iranian-Israeli joint venture completed in 1968 is designed to carry close to a million barrels per day, circumventing the Suez canal.

It rarely does, though. The Shah was deposed in 1979, Egypt became a pivotal Western ally, the Israeli-developed Sinai oil fields were returned to Egypt in the early 1980's, and, in a glutted market, Israel resorted to importing 99 percent of the 280,000 barrels it consumes daily.

According to Stratfor, the Strategic Forecasting consultancy, "tankers bearing Russian crude from the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk would unload at Israel's Mediterranean port of Ashkelon. After that, the oil would traverse the Tipline to Israel's Red Sea port of Eilat, where it would be reloaded onto tankers for shipment to Asia. The Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Co. estimates the pipeline will be ready for Russian crude in mid-2003."

Russia is emerging as a major oil supplier and a serious challenge to the hegemony of Saudi Arabia and OPEC. Even the USA increasingly taps the Russian market for crude and derivatives. With Arab countries - including the hitherto unwaveringly loyal Gulf states - progressively perceived as hostile by American scholars and decision makers, Russia arises as a potent alternative. The newfangled Russian-Israeli commercial alliance probably won applause from Washington hardliners, eager to relieve the Saudi stranglehold on energy supplies.

Quoted by the American Foreign Policy Council, Russia's Energy Minister, Igor Yusufov, addressing the Russian-US Energy Forum in Houston, Texas, last month said that "the high degree of economic and political stability that the Russian Federation has achieved makes it a reliable supplier of oil and gas".

He expressed his belief - shared by many analysts - that Russia will become a major exporter of oil to the USA "in the foreseeable future". According to the Dow Jones Newswires, private Russian oil firms, such as Lukoil, are heavily invested in US gas stations and refineries in anticipation of these inevitable developments. As if to underline these, the Financial Times reported, on October 3, a purchase of 300,000 barrels of oil from the Russian Tyumen Oil company.

The deal with Israel will allow Russia to peddle its oil in the Asian market, a major export target and a monopoly of the Gulf producers. Russia is in the throes of constructing several pipelines to Asia through its eastern territories and Pacific coastline - but completion dates are uncertain.

For its part, according to the Department of Energy, Israel extracts natural gas from offshore fields but has no commercial fossil fuel resources of its own. It imports oil from Mexico, Norway, and the United Kingdom and coal from as far away as Australia, Colombia, and South Africa. Israel buys natural gas and oil from Egypt. The bulk of the energy sector is moribund and state-owned, ostensibly for reasons of national security. The deal with Russia is a godsend.

Israel is perfectly located to offer an affordable alternative to expensive and often clogged oil shipping lanes through the Suez Canal or the Cape. A revival of the Trans-Arabian pipeline (Tapline) to Haifa can considerably under-price the politically wobbly Iraqi-Turkish and the costly Suez-Mediterranean (Sumed) alternatives.

With one of every five Israelis a Russian émigré and confronted with the common enemy of Islamic militancy, Israel and Russia have embarked on a path of close cooperation. Prime Minister Sharon's visit to Russia last month was a resounding success. Faced with these millennial geopolitical developments, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists are having a field day.

The Jewish lobby, they say, is coercing America, its long arm, to hijack the Iraqi oil fields in the forthcoming war and thus to counterbalance surging Russian oil exports. Israel, they aver, planned to carry out, in October 2001, an operation - "Mivtza Shekhina" - to secure southern Iraq's oil fields while also mitigating the threat of weapons of mass destruction aimed at its population centers.

Conspiratorial paranoia notwithstanding, it is unlikely that the USA is motivated by oil interests in its war on Saddam. A battle in Iraq aimed solely at apprehending its crude would be fighting over yesterday's oilfields. Only an easily replaceable one tenth to one eighth of American oil consumption emanates from the Gulf, about a million barrels per day of it from Iraq. Moreover, the war is likely to alienate far more important suppliers, such as Russia - as well as the largest European clients of Gulf oil extracted by American firms. Strictly in terms of oil, a war in Iraq is counterproductive.

Additionally, such a war is likely to push oil prices up. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, "for every dollar-per-barrel increase in oil prices, about $4 billion a year would leave America's $11 trillion economy, and other importing countries would lose another $16 billion per year".

Israel understandably did discuss with the USA its role in a showdown with Iraq. Russia, unsettled as it is by America's growing presence in central Asia and exercised by its determination to take on Iraq - may be trying to lure Israel away from its automatic support of US goals by dangling the oiled carrot of a joint pipeline.

Russia also hopes to neuter the rapprochement between Israel and the Islamic nations of Turkey and Azerbaijan, traditional adversaries of Moscow. Israel is the second largest buyer of oil from Azerbaijan. It is one of the sponsors of a pipeline from the Baku oilfields to the port of Ceyhan in Turkey. The pipeline stands to compete with a less costly and more hostile to the West Russian-Iranian route.

These are momentous times. Oil is still by far the most strategic commodity and securing its uninterrupted flow is essential to the functioning of both developed and developing countries. There is a discernible tectonic shift in production and proven reserves from the Persian Gulf, the US except Alaska, the North Sea, and Latin America to northern Europe, Russia, and the Caspian Basin. Yet, oil is still a buyers' market. OPEC has long been denuded of its mythical power and oil prices - even at the current interim peak - are still historically low in real terms.

But Russia stands to gain whichever way. Middle East tensions, in Palestine and Iraq, have ratcheted oil prices up resulting in a much-needed budgetary windfall. Russia's mostly-privatized oil industry has cleverly ploughed back its serendipitous profits into pipelines, drilling, and exploration. When the dust settles in the deserts of Arabia, Russia will emerge victorious with the largest oil market share. Israel is not oblivious to this scenario.

Also Read:

Russian Roulette - The Energy Sector

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