March 29, 2017
Mohammad Ersan; translated by Pascale el-Khoury
AMMAN, Jordan — Voices opposed to a gas sales and purchase agreement (GSPA) signed in September between Jordan’s National Electric Power Company and the operator of an Israeli gas field got louder March 20 when the Jordanian parliament obtained a copy of the agreement, whose details had been kept secret. Those against the contract are calling on the parliament to reject it.
Houston-based Noble Energy holds the concession for developing Israel’s largest offshore gas deposit, the Leviathan natural gas field, 50 miles off the coast of Haifa in the Mediterranean. The agreement, expected to enter into force in 2019, has sparked demonstrations because many Jordanians view it as tantamount to normalization with Israel. According to the GSPA, Jordan will import 300 million cubic feet of gas per day from the Leviathan field for 15 years at a cost of $10 billion. Noble has a nearly 40% working interest in the field, while Israeli companies hold the rest.
In a related development, Jordanians opposing a gas deal signed in 2014 recently discovered that they had failed to stop the gas from flowing from the Israeli Tamar field to Jordan, as deliveries began in January. “Israel has begun quietly exporting natural gas to Jordan after two Jordanian companies — Arab Potash and Jordan Bromine — were connected to Israel’s national pipeline network,” the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported March 2.
The Jordanian government had been keen to keep the two agreements confidential. Energy Minister Ibrahim Saif described the GSPA as exempt from disclosure under Article 13 of the law guaranteeing the right of access to information. He told Al-Monitor, “Some trade details are difficult to disclose to the public, as they are confidential information concerning the financial interests of the partner.”
The detractors against normalizing relations between Israel and Jordan see this secrecy as an attempt by the government to keep the Jordanian street from mobilizing against the agreement, which the government views as salvation from dependence on Egyptian gas, whose suspension — following 13 separate attacks on the GASCO feeder pipeline to el-Arish — has since 2011 increased the budget deficit annually by 30%, or an annual average of $2.5 billion.
Despite assorted commercial and political dealings between Jordan and Israel, 23 years after the signing of the peace treaty with Israel, Jordanians still boycott Israeli products. In October, as part of a campaign called The Enemy’s Gas Is Occupation, Jordanians protesting the GSPA with Noble Energy turned the electricity off in their homes from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. to send a message to the Jordan Electricity Company demanding that the state refrain from importing Israeli gas. Protesters also staged a series of sit-ins and marches, including a sit-in in January against Arab Potash, accusing it of paying $500 million for gas viewed as stolen from Palestine and whose proceeds would in part revert to Israel and therefore help fund the occupation and war.
Campaign coordinator Hisham al-Bustani told Al-Monitor, “We reject this agreement for several reasons. We believe Israel is a colonial, occupying state, and this gas is stolen from the land of the people that it displaced and killed. We refuse to support Zionism, and 56% of the proceeds of this deal will revert to the Israeli treasury, armies and settlements, colonialism and war activities.”
Bustani further stated, “The deal was agreed to under pressure exerted by the US government, as US companies hold stakes of 36% in the Tamar gas field and 39% in the Leviathan field. The US has political interests in seeing Israel integrated into the region and finding customers for the gas it produces.” Citing alternatives to importing gas from Israel, Bustani called on the Jordanian government to invest the $10 billion in local energy projects involving solar, wind and oil shale and for the development of natural gas fields in the kingdom.
Under popular pressure, Jordanian parliamentarians are trying to shed light on the gas agreement. The reform bloc, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, had called for a March 14 legislative session to discuss it. Questions raised in the parliament about the terms of the agreement are what pushed the government to send a copy to the speaker March 20.
Ali Khalayleh, chairman of the parliament committee on energy, told Al-Monitor, “When the committee receives the full details of the agreement, it will review them and submit a report to the parliament, which will be followed by a session to discuss this agreement. The secret articles will be discussed in a secret meeting.”
According to the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry, the kingdom imports about 97% of its energy, accounting for 23% of the country’s gross domestic product. According to the ministry's 2016 annual report, natural gas imports account for 80% of the total energy used for generating electricity.
Abdullah al-Sawalha, head of the Center for Israeli Studies in Amman, told Al-Monitor, “The agreement is important for Jordan given the proximity between the gas production fields and the kingdom and due to the diversity of energy sources. The agreement will allow Jordan to dispense with the production of electricity using fuel, which will reduce the budget deficit.”
Sawalha ruled out an opposition-promoted scenario in which Israel would use the agreement to control Jordan's access to energy. He explained, “The Israeli gas to be imported barely covers 17% of Jordan's total energy needs. Therefore, the theory that Israel aims through this agreement to strong arm and blackmail Jordan and monopolize the Jordanian energy market is not economically viable.”
Regarding the opposition's impact on the future of the agreement, Sawalha asserted, “The government's response to the political demands of the people is minimal, and the ability of the Jordanian citizen or political groups to escalate their demands, whether through official channels, such as the parliament, or through popular protests and demonstrations, is weak in light of the lack of ability to mobilize.”
A state of languor currently characterizes the relationship between Israel and Jordan, emanating from differences over the Palestinian issue. Statements made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint conference with US President Donald Trump in February appeared to be the nail in the coffin for the two-state solution. The relationship also experienced strain in light of Jordanian concerns amid statements on transferring the US Embassy to Jerusalem, in a move that the Hashemite kingdom sees would be a blow to their treaty, which officially recognizes Jordan's custodianship over certain holy sites in Jerusalem. In addition, in February 2016, Netanyahu had announced a plan to install a security fence between Jordan and Israel. Regardless, the Jordanian government continues to sees the gas agreement as a “strategic option” allowing it to diversify energy sources.