The two weeks since Egypt’s abrupt cancellation of a Mubarak-era gas-export deal with Israel have seen an exchange of indirect threats and warnings between the two countries, culminating in an apparent Israeli military build-up on the border of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
“In recent days, Israel appears to have begun preparing for military deployments on its southern border,” Tarek Fahmi, head of the Israel desk at the Cairo-based National Centre for Middle East Studies, told IPS.
On Apr. 22, Egypt unilaterally cancelled a 2005 export agreement for the sale of natural gas to Israel, which for the past five years had ensured a steady supply of Egyptian gas from the northern Sinai Peninsula to Israel. Egyptian energy officials attributed the move to Israel’s failure to meet payment deadlines, stressing that the decision was “not politically motivated.”
Israel, which is said to depend on Egyptian gas for some 40 percent of its electricity needs, was quick to register its opposition.
Several Israeli officials warned of the move’s dire implications for the Camp David peace agreement, signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979. Israeli opposition leader Shaul Mofaz called on his country’s chief patron, the United States, to intervene on Israel’s behalf.
The Israeli Finance Ministry went so far as to describe the move as “a dangerous precedent that casts clouds over the peace agreements and the atmosphere of peace between Egypt and Israel.”
While Israeli officials have vowed to take legal action to ensure the supply of Egyptian gas, local energy analysts say Egypt was well within its legal rights to opt out of the deal.
“The Israeli purchasers failed to pay their bills to the tune of some 100 million dollars,” Ibrahim Zahran, Egyptian petroleum expert, told IPS. “The contract clearly states that if either party fails to live up to its obligations, the other has the right to terminate the agreement.”
Egypt first began pumping natural gas to Israel in 2008, based on a deal hammered out three years earlier that allowed Egypt-Israel joint venture East Mediterranean Gas (EMG) to sell Egyptian natural gas to Israeli buyers, including the government-run Israel Electric Corporation.
Given Israel’s broad unpopularity on the Egyptian street, the gas-export deal has met with widespread public opposition since its inception. Critics note that, by providing Israel with Egyptian gas at far below international prices (while Egypt itself suffers from chronic energy shortages), the deal effectively supports - albeit indirectly - Israel’s ongoing occupation and annexation of Palestinian land.