Hebrew Word of the Week: gas(s)


spice word 022416

How gas could warm relations between Israel and Turkey


On the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in Washington in March, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a private meeting with Israel's energy minister, Yuval Steinitz. It was the highest level contact between Israel and Turkey since diplomatic relations broke down six years ago after Israeli forces raided a Turkish ship bound for Gaza, killing 10 Turkish activists.

The meeting, which lasted 20 to 30 minutes and whose details have not been previously disclosed, discussed the war in Syria, Iran's presence there, terrorism – and natural gas. That last item is a key driver of efforts to forge a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey: At stake are reserves of natural gas worth hundreds of billions of dollars under the waters of Israel and Cyprus. To exploit them Israel will likely require the cooperation of Turkey.

In an interview at his office in Jerusalem, Steinitz confirmed the Washington meeting. “It was in a very good atmosphere,” he said. “I don't want to say more than that … I'm a great proponent of this effort to resume diplomatic relations with Turkey.”

Since the Washington meeting, high-level envoys from Turkey and Israel have talked privately in Geneva and London to hammer out a deal on restoring relations between the former allies. Discussions have at times become bogged down: Israel wants Turkey to cut ties with Hamas representatives based in Turkey; Ankara wants reassurances on providing aid to Palestinians in Gaza, among other things.

A senior Turkish official said he was not aware of the meeting and said it would have been outside normal protocol for a president to meet a minister.

Overall, though, Israeli officials believe an agreement can be reached in the coming weeks.

“We have resolved 80 to 90 percent of the difficulties, or gaps, and now with a little bit of goodwill and flexibility on both sides we can reach the remaining items,” Steinitz said. “I think we are pretty close (to normalising relations).”

There have also been positive noises from Turkey. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on June 7 that Ankara was “one or two meetings away” from normalising ties with Israel. However, he did not put a timeframe on the process.

 

VAST RESERVES

Israel and Cyprus, which have increasingly close ties, sit on an estimated 3,450 billion cubic metres of gas buried in the Levant Basin, according to a U.S. Geological Survey carried out late last decade. Those reserves are worth around $700 billion and equate to enough gas to supply the entire world for a year. And that's only proven reserves. A recent seismological survey conducted by a French consultancy suggested Israel alone may be sitting on nearly three times as much gas as first thought, according to Steinitz.

The problem is not just the huge costs of drilling for the gas, but finding a route to deliver it to customers. While a portion of the gas would go for domestic consumption, the vast majority is earmarked for export. Unless Israel and Cyprus can lock in long-term export contracts, the costs of developing the deepwater fields will not be covered and the vast assets may never be fully exploited.

Jordan, which has a peace treaty with Israel, may be a long-run buyer of Israeli gas, but is a modest market. Neighbouring Lebanon and Syria – both sworn enemies of Israel – are out of the question. Instead, Turkey and Egypt, with 80 million and 93 million people respectively, would be a far better fit as potential long-term consumers.

An initial plan was to send some of the gas to Egypt, which already has small contracts to buy gas from Israel. But in the past year Egypt has discovered natural gas off its coastline and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has said he will push ahead rapidly with developing its own energy resources.

Steinitz says a deal with Egypt remains an option. But Israel is also turning towards exploring a pipeline to Turkey, both for consumers there and as a connection to Europe. A third option is a Cyprus-Greece-Europe route.

As a result, restoring relations with Ankara is now a linchpin in Israel's strategy to unlock its natural gas wealth.

“Turkey would very much like to diversify its energy imports and resources,” said Steinitz, when pressed about the restoration of ties between the countries. “They don't want to be dependent on one source, or two sources of energy.”

 

RUSSIA CONNECTION

Turkey imports the bulk of its gas from Russia. But Ankara's ties with Moscow are strained, particularly over the Syrian conflict after a Turkish fighter plane shot down a Russian jet last November. In 2015, Turkey trimmed its imports of Russian gas by 300 million cubic metres to around 27 billion cubic metres (bcm) a year, to the annoyance of Moscow.

Yet Turkey's rapidly growing economy still consumes 50 bcm of gas a year and demand is set to double over the next seven or eight years, analysts say. Diversifying supply will be important.

“They need other sources, reliable sources, of gas,” said Steinitz. “We have an interest to exportIsraeli gas and to have export options – not to be totally dependent on one country for our exports. So it's a very good opportunity here.”

Turkish energy companies share that view. Both Zorlu Enerji and a consortium of Turcas and Enerjisa have been in talks with Israel over gas prices and potential pipeline routes, a Turkish industry source told Reuters late last year.

“There's a potential of around 30 bcm of gas (a year) there, of which Turkey could buy 8 bcm to 10 bcm (a year),” the source said.

Building a pipeline to Turkey or Egypt is about the same distance, around 540 km (340 miles), and about the same cost, around $3 billion. Turkey is more attractive because of its position as a gateway to Europe.

 

THE CYPRUS PROBLEM

Though Steinitz is hopeful of mending fences with Turkey, regional analysts remain sceptical of a gas bonanza in the East Mediterranean any time soon.

“A lot of the talk is pie in the sky,” said Michael Leigh, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in the United States and an expert on gas discoveries in the East Mediterranean. He believes there are too many political and commercial obstacles to getting the gas out of the seabed and transporting it to markets.

Perhaps the trickiest issue is Cyprus. Since 1974 the island has been split between the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, after the Turks invaded following a military coup on the island backed by Greece. There are no diplomatic ties between the south, which is a member of the European Union, and Turkey.

Large amounts of gas are located in the territorial waters of the Republic of Cyprus. If it and Israelare intent on coordinating their export strategy – and if Turkey is to be one of the routes – the divisions in Cyprus must be addressed first, analysts say. That's because at least part of the pipeline would have to pass through Cypriot territorial waters into Turkish territorial waters.

British and Cypriot diplomats have talked hopefully about a breakthrough on reunifying Cyprus, but it remains far from certain. “We can see that there is an alignment of the stars and momentum from both sides,” said a senior official directly involved in talks. “The prospects are certainly better than they have been in a very long time. But we cannot say there is a deal until everything is in place.”

Even if a deal can be reached, it still may not mean all hurdles are cleared. Leigh, of the German Marshall Fund, pointed out that Erdogan, whose imprimatur is critical to a resolution, has blown hot and cold on the issue.

In relation to exploiting the gas reserves, Leigh added: “A resolution of the Cyprus problem is necessary but not sufficient – you need commercial viability, too.” He is not convinced the Levant Basin is a reliable investment, given the decline in gas prices and the cost of extracting the gas and piping it to markets.

Steinitz remains optimistic, convinced that Israel's economic stability and energy security depend on developing the country's gas resources in whatever way possible.

“We are going to do it by hook or by crook,” he said. “We have to overcome all the difficulties and do it because it is essential for Israel's future.”

Knesset to vote on controversial natural gas deal


The Israeli Knesset is set to vote on a recent Cabinet decision to override the Antitrust Authority and enact a controversial agreement on the development of Israel’s offshore natural gas reserves.

On Sunday, the Cabinet voted to allow the government to override the Antitrust Authority, which objects to the current draft agreement between the Israeli government and the gas companies, U.S.-based Noble Energy and Israeli-owned Delek Group. The full Knesset will vote on Monday.

“I am determined to advance a realistic solution that will bring gas to the Israeli economy,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday at the Cabinet meeting. “I will not capitulate to populist proposals that will leave the gas deep underground. We have already seen enough countries that succumbed to these pressures and the gas has remained in the ground. This cannot be allowed to happen here.”

The Cabinet move comes days after the security Cabinet unanimously approved the expedited development and expansion of the natural gas fields that have been discovered off Israel’s coast.

Also Sunday, Israel’s deputy attorney general found that Netanyahu could continue overseeing natural gas regulating, despite a letter sent to the prime minister in July 2014 by American supporter Sheldon Adelson that urged him to consider “streamlining the regulation of hydrocarbons in Israel.”

Haaretz first reported on the potential conflict on Friday.

Netanyahu responded to the report in a Facebook post.

“I do not work for any tycoon – I’m the prime minister of Israel and I work for you, for the security of the State of Israel and the welfare of all of its citizens,” he wrote. “During the election I pledged to work to reduce the cost of living. I am determined to do this through the many resources we will gain through [implementation of] the gas draft. The draft dismantles the monopoly and will bring over the coming decades hundreds of millions of shekels for education, welfare and health for all the citizens of Israel.”

The Prime Minister’s Office said that Netanyahu never discussed policies related to natural gas with Adelson, either directly or indirectly, according to Haaretz.

On Saturday night, thousands of Israelis protested in Saturday night against the potential deal between the government and the gas companies.

The Jews who lit up the oil business


Chanukah’s glow will soon be rekindled, and as we again tell the story of the miracle of the oil in the Temple, it’s also a good time to shed light on another kind of miracle, this one more local, of how Jews helped to light up the early oil business in Los Angeles.

Among urban landscapes in the United States, L.A.’s is unique in that oil flows beneath our feet, its apparatus is right in front of our eyes and at times we breathe its scent. On our way to and from the Los Angeles airport on La Cienega Boulevard, we can see a bare-earth-and-brush scene of grasshoppers pumping away. Driving on San Vicente Boulevard, we see an oil rig awkwardly perched between the Beverly Center and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

We also know oil and gas as scary neighbors. Many here remember the Palms-Culver City gasoline pipeline explosion of 1976, which took out an entire city block, or, in 1985, a methane gas explosion that blew the roof off of the Fairfax area Ross Dress for Less and demolished the store’s interior.

The discovery of oil in commercial quantities in the L.A. environs near the end of the 19th century brought about a big enough population and business boom that some dubbed this region the “Oildorado.” Drilling down through that history, amid the gushes of oil, are stories of Jewish shopkeepers, investors and property owners — big and small — whose lives have been touched by black gold.

Samuel Prager (1831-1907), a Jewish Los Angeles dry goods merchant, was among the first to see oil’s commercial potential, even before the forests of derricks sprang up northwest of downtown.

Born in Prussia in 1831, Prager came to Los Angeles in 1854 to seek his fortune, starting with a store that sold clothing, boots and shoes. According to a story in Western States Jewish History, by 1867 he was one of the first sellers of oil — a good that decidedly was not dry.

This was before the motorcar, so why would Prager’s customers have needed oil? At the time, oil was used for covering dirt streets and as a lubricant for machinery, and it could also be distilled to create lamp oil.

At various locations in the Los Angeles area — including what we call today the La Brea Tar Pits — the locals were well aware of the tar (in Spanish, brea, a form of oil from which the lighter parts have evaporated) that seeped to the ground’s surface. The first well in Los Angeles, known as the “Dryden Well,” was dug by hand at the site of one of these seeps in 1857, according to the Cypress office of California’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR).

Prager, in addition to being a successful merchant, was a community leader known around town as “Uncle Sam.” In 1886, when he was appointed deputy county assessor of the City of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Herald newspaper noted that Prager’s ability to speak “German, Spanish, Hebrew, French and English,” would be an asset to his new duties.

Like many other Los Angeles Jewish men of that period, Prager was active in Masonry, including the Masonic Board of Relief. He was also an officer of a local chapter of a national Jewish fraternity called Kesher Shel Barzel (Band of Iron).


From left: Samuel Prager and Isaias Hellman. Photos courtesy of Western States Jewish History

Though by the 1890s, new prospectors had come to the area hoping to capitalize on the growing need for oil with the growth of industrialization, and no one had yet dug a well that could produce enough to demonstrate commercial viability.

“E.L. Doheny and a partner had the good luck to strike some of the first oil found in quantities within the city limits,” Harris Newmark wrote in “Sixty Years in Southern California,” his account of L.A.’s early years. Edward Doheny’s partner was Charles Canfield — neither Doheny nor Canfield are Jewish — but in the biography of the Jewish immigrant Isaias Hellman, “Towers of Gold,” written by his great-great-granddaughter, Frances Dinkelspiel, there’s an account of just how the down-on-his-luck Canfield was able to come up with the money for his share in a piece of property that showed promise for oil.

At the time, “Canfield was broke,” Dinkelspiel wrote, so “he went to see Isaias and asked to borrow $500.” Seeing Canfield’s determination, Hellman made the loan, “setting the stage for the creation of one of the state’s largest and most lucrative oil companies.” 

According to Margaret Leslie Davis’ book “Dark Side of Fortune: Triumph and Scandal in the Life of Oil Tycoon Edward L. Doheny,” in 1892, Doheny and Canfield started digging a well, but had to stop because of natural gas fumes. By 1893 they were able to drill down farther by having a crew erect a 20-foot-high derrick made from 4-by-4s, and by using a drill created from a cross-shaped bit attached to a three-inch iron rod.

After several setbacks — the bit fell into the pit and had to be retrieved — and after drilling through solid rock, they withdrew the bit and found it was soaked with oil. The hole, located at State and Patton streets in what is now Echo Park, was the “first free-flowing oil well ever drilled in the city of Los Angeles.”

The boom was on. Within two years, dozens of companies had leased land near Doheny’s and Canfield’s well, producing an estimated 750,000 barrels of oil in just two years in what was called the Los Angeles City Oil Field.

By 1920, a group of Jewish investors, who were restricted from membership in many of the city’s athletic clubs, purchased a 142-acre plot of land on an unpaved portion of Pico Boulevard, right in the middle of a swath of undeveloped rolling hills dotted with oil derricks — in the midst of the neighborhood now known as Cheviot Hills. The investors’ plan was to turn the land into a private golf course and club, and thus was born Hillcrest Country Club, with Samuel Newmark — nephew of Harris — as the founding president.

“Drilling Through Time,” William Rintoul’s book about the history of California’s oil business, tells of how, in the late 1950s, Signal Oil, after successfully drilling for oil in nearby Beverly Hills, picked a brushy ravine within the Hillcrest golf course as an ideal oil drilling site to tap into the Beverly Hills field, as well as one below Cheviot Hills.

Inasmuch as the proposed site was located just 100 yards from Hillcrest’s clubhouse, how did they convince a board of already wealthy members to drill?

“Perhaps if we sign with Signal, we will be as rich as Bob Hope or Bing Crosby one day,” Jack Benny, a Hillcrest member, is quoted by Rintoul as saying.

Though Signal found the Hillcrest directors concerned with “rising costs, insurance, taxes and overhead,” they “succeeded in getting permission to drill,” Rintoul wrote.

Signal hired Hollywood sound stage experts to ensure that the drilling rigs would be quiet. To make the equipment inconspicuous, architect Henry C. Burge from University of Southern California was brought in to design a tower that would be surrounded by palms and painted green at its base, then gradually turn to sky blue at its top. (The tower is gone now.)

Signal originally drilled 33 wells within an isolated area on the course (and another 15 wells under a site in nearby Rancho Park). According to DOGGR records, the remaining approximately 12 wells on the country club grounds, operated by the Hillcrest Beverly Oil Corporation (which in 2011 was purchased by E & B Natural Resources), are still in operation today. In 2013, according to DOGGR, 62,427 barrels of oil were pumped from those 12 wells.

According to a 1972 article in Time magazine, Hillcrest “members, who have shares in the club, collect tax-sheltered dividends on their original initiation fees, and ‘B.O.’ (for ‘before oil’) memberships have become so valuable that they are willed from father to son.” Hillcrest officials declined to comment for this article.

Other Jewish Angelenos live with drilling islands camouflaged within their midst, as well — sometimes uncomfortably so. There have been fears of health risks associated with the flower design-covered “Tower of Hope,” which encloses the rig at Beverly Hills High School that is visible from Olympic Boulevard and whose oil output also pumps royalties into the school.

However, according to the Associated Press, in 2007 Superior Court Judge Wendell Mortimer Jr. said he was not persuaded that there was any danger related to the pump’s operation, and dropped the Beverly Hills Unified School District from a lawsuit claiming the well had caused cancer in former students.  

Some have mistaken the Cardiff Tower, an enclosed oil pumping station located at Pico Boulevard and Doheny Drive, for a shul. Nileguide.com, a travel website, says it looks “very much like a synagogue tower.” Drilling Contractor Magazine, an oil industry publication, includes a photo of B’nai David-
Judea Congregation that is misidentified as the nearby oil rig tower. According to a 1999 Jewish Journal article by Julie Gruenbaum Fax, “many homeowners and shuls hold royalty rights and get paid a quarterly sum for the oil extracted from their property.”

Further east on Pico Boulevard, there’s an oil building at Genesee Avenue known as the Packard Well Site, which sits on property purchased by Henry Jacob Clar, according to an article in Western States Jewish History by Norton Stern.

Clar was born in Ukraine around 1885; after living in Colorado, where oil was discovered on his farm, he moved his family to L.A. in 1922. Here he worked as a waiter, and from his earnings he invested in property, including the one on which the Packard structure sits. Even after his death in 1970, the royalties received from Standard Oil continued to flow. 

At the L.A. oil industry’s high point, there were tens of thousands of active wells in the L.A. basin, but even as that number has by now declined to perhaps less than 3,000 active in L.A. County, for some in the Jewish community, even with the perceived risk of proximity, oil is the gift that keeps on giving.

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FOR THE RECORD: The number of barrels of oil pumped in 2013 from the Hillcrest Country Club site has been corrected.

Delivery system for a lot of gas


For the record: Hitler did use chemical weapons, Chris Matthews


On Tuesday’s “Morning Joe” program on MSNBC, Chris Matthews made a declaration about the use of chemical weapons that is raising some hackles. Speaking about Syria, he said:

If you basically put down a red line and say don’t use chemical weapons, and it’s been enforced in the Western community, around the world — international community for decades. Don’t use chemical weapons. We didn’t use them in World War II, Hitler didn’t use them, we don’t use chemical weapons, that’s no deal. Although we do know that Assad’s father did. Then he goes ahead and does it. It makes you wonder what the mullahs will do if they have a couple of nuclear weapons, just a couple.

For the record, the U.S. used nuclear weapons in World War II, which arguably are worse than chemical weapons. And, of course, Hitler used chemical weapons — gassing defenseless Jews in the concentration camps.

Watch the clip:

Protesters chant ‘Hamas, Jews to gas’ in Antwerp


Belgian extreme-right and extreme-left activists participated in a demonstration in Antwerp where some participants reportedly called for Jews to be gassed.

Approximately 150 demonstrators gathered Sunday afternoon outside the Provinciehuis, a concert hall in the Flemish capital, to protest the Israel Defense Forces Orchestra’s performance there, according to the online edition of the Flemish-Jewish magazine Joods Actueel.

Several demonstrators can be heard chanting “Hamas, Hamas, all Jews to the gas” in recordings from the demonstration, which Joods Actueel posted on its news website. They will be filed to police along with an official complaint over hate speech, the paper reported.

One wing of the demonstration comprised members of center-left and extreme-left movements, including Fouad Ahidar, a Brussels alderman and member of the Socialist party SP-A. One of the protesters there carried a sign reading: “Tzahal, you are stinking murders (sic).”

Another wing of the demonstration comprised activists from the extreme right, including Eddy Hermy, an activist of the N-SA movement, Joods Actueel reported. He has been twice convicted of racist speech. His articles are regularly published on the neo-Nazi website solidarisme.be.

A commentary by Joods Actueel on the incident read: “We are not surprised by this. When it comes to anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiments, we find these groups together.” 

The IDF orchestra’s tour in the Netherlands and Belgium began two days before Israel launched operation Pillar of Defense against Hamas on Nov. 14.

Several European cities, including The Hague and Brussels, have seen protests against the IDF offensive against Hamas, which Israel launched in response to the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel.

Russia tells Syria Chemical Arms Threat Unacceptable


Russia has told the Syrian government clearly that it is unacceptable to threaten to use chemical weapons, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday in its strongest condemnation of a recent warning by a Syrian official.

In a meeting with Syria’s ambassador to Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov “laid out in an extremely clear form Russia’s position on the inadmissibility of any threats of the use of chemical weapons”, he ministry said.

Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi acknowledged on Monday that country had chemical weapons, saying it would not use them to crush rebels but could use them against forces from outside Syria.

Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya

Assad chemical weapons plans blocked by Moscow


Increasingly under pressure by rebels intent on unseating him, Bashar al-Assad has considered using chemical weapons against his enemies but Washington and Moscow have formed an unlikely alliance to force him to abandon such plans.

Analysts and diplomats across the region and beyond do not doubt that the Assad government, recoiling from a devastating attack on its security establishment last week and struggling to contain rebel offensives across Syria, is capable of using agents such as Sarin gas if its survival is at stake.

Yet some believe that the government’s unprecedented admission that it possesses a chemical stockpile – although in safe storage and only to be deployed against “external aggressors” – is an attempt to allay international alarm that might prompt outside intervention to secure the weapons.

“They have a keen instinct for regime survival and this is an issue which didn’t play well for them, which would really bring serious consequences, not the type of stuff we have been seeing so far from the international community,” said Salman al-Shaikh of the Brookings Doha center.

“I think they wanted to move quickly to take us away from that, to reassure in many ways.

“This regime is capable of anything, but in this case it felt there may well be consequences, that they are perhaps crossing some red lines.”

There has been a barrage of warnings about Syria’s chemical arsenal this month, especially strident from the United States and Israel, but accompanied by firm but private advice from Russia, Assad’s main international ally, to put an end to speculation he might use it.

One Western diplomat in the region said: “There was talk of them using it two weeks ago, but the Russians intervened quickly to stop him.

“If you think how desperate these people are and what they have done in the past, you have to assume they would be prepared to use it. All of us think he (Assad) is capable of using it and will do it if he was pushed to the wall,” the diplomat said, referring to credible reports that Assad was preparing to use Sarin gas against Syrian rebels.

But “the Russians got hold of him and told him ‘don’t even think about it’”.

Moscow went further on Monday, publicly warning Assad not to use chemical weapons, which it said was barred by Syria’s 1968 ratification of an international protocol against using poison gas in war.

“The Russian side proceeds from the assumption that Syrian authorities will continue to strictly adhere to the undertaken international obligations,” it said.

SHARED INTEREST

The diplomat believes Syria’s statement, by foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi, was put out at Russia’s insistence.

Despite the diplomatic “debacle” over Syria at the UN Security Council, where Moscow has vetoed tougher action against Damascus, “there is a clear shared interest between Russia and the United States to control the chemical weapons”, he said.

“The Israelis are pretty serious about trying to stop it happening, and the Americans too,” the envoy said.

Diplomats said the United States, Israel and Western powers were in close contact on how to deal with the nightmarish eventuality of Assad losing control and his chemical weapons falling into the hands of militant groups – al-Qaeda style Sunni Jihadi insurgents or Assad’s pro-Iranian Shi’ite Lebanese fighters from Hezbollah.

Israel has publicly discussed military action to prevent Syrian chemical weapons or missiles from reaching Hezbollah.

Some Western intelligence sources suggested that Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, both close allies of Syria, have sent some special units to back Assad in his fight against Sunni insurgents and might get hold of the chemical weapons in the case of a total collapse of government authority.

Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, has tried to distance itself publicly from the Syrian quagmire but it believes a defeat for Syria would mean the group might be targeted next.

Asked whether Hezbollah would try to obtain Syria’s chemical weapons, one diplomat said: “If you think of this as a fight to the death, either with Sunnis or Israelis or both, you’d have an interest in trying to get your hands on chemical weapons.

“It’s one more deterrent against Israel and a big stick to wave,” he said.

President Barack Obama said on Monday that Assad would be held accountable if he made the “tragic mistake” of using his chemical weapons.

Washington said it was keeping a close eye on Syria’s chemical stockpiles and was “actively consulting with Syria’s neighbors and friends to underscore their common concern about the security of these weapons, and the Syrian government’s obligation to secure them”.

REALPOLITIK?

For the Kremlin, revelations about the chemical arsenal will add to its fears about how chaos in Syria could pose risks to Russia, but will not prompt a shift in Moscow’s stance on a crisis that is poisoning its relations with Arabs and the West.

For President Vladimir Putin, making the point that foreign interference is unacceptable trumps other concerns when it comes to Syria.

But Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, suggested Russia was working with the United States and other countries to try to safeguard chemical weapons or at least is discussing it, although the Kremlin probably believes the concerns are overblown.

“I think Russia is working with everyone, with America first of all … Putin met the Turkish prime minister, he was in Israel, and is in constant contact with the Americans. Of course, nobody wants chemical weapons to be used, let alone to get into the hands of terrorists”.

Russia has blunted Western efforts to condemn Assad and push him from power after voicing anger over NATO air strikes that helped Libyan rebels oust Gaddafi last year.

Since Putin announced in September that he intended to return to the presidency this year, Russia has vetoed three resolutions designed to step up pressure on Assad, angering Western and Arab states that say Moscow is protecting a brutal regime.

That contention will only be compounded by Syria’s acknowledgement on Monday that it has chemical and biological weapons and warning that it could use them if foreign countries intervened.

Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst, said:

“Russia’s position is not dictated by the nature or the actions of the Syrian regime. Russia’s position is very much dictated by an ideological approach – by 19th century Realpolitik, if you will: the overthrow of our ally, our son of a bitch, is a victory for our opponent. Putin still thinks in terms of a zero-sum game.”

NERVE AGENT

Damascus has not signed a 1992 convention that bans chemical weapons, but officials had in the past denied it had any.

It has officially stated that while it supports a Middle East-wide ban on weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it cannot unilaterally renounce chemical arms as long as Israel continues to pose a threat to its security.

Syria began to acquire the ability to develop and produce chemical weapons agents in 1973, including mustard gas and sarin, and possibly also VX nerve agent.

The Global Security website, which collects published intelligence reports and other data, says there are four suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria: north of Damascus, near Homs, in Hama, and near the Mediterranean port of Latakia.

Analysts have also identified the town of Cerin, on the coast, as a possible producer of biological weapons. Several other sites are monitored by foreign intelligence agencies and are listed only as suspect. Weapons Syria produces include the nerve agents VX, sarin and tabun, the website said.

Exact volumes of weapons in the Syrian stockpile are not known. However, the CIA has estimated that Syria possesses several hundred liters of chemical weapons and produces hundreds of tonnes of agents annually.

David Friedman, WMD expert at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said “for weaponisation, the material is poured into warheads, which can be anything from ballistic missiles to standard artillery shells to air-dropped munitions. The weapons can be as small as mortar bombs. Some of Syria’s chemical weapons are already in launch-ready, warhead form”.

Abdelbasset Seida, head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, said: “A regime that massacres children and rapes women could use these types of weapons.”

There are many scenarios under which Assad could fall but the worst-case scenario envisages a chaotic and messy downfall with militants and rebels seizing chemical arsenals.

While observers say the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government cannot be excluded, they believe it is not imminent.

“We cannot rule it out but we are probably some ways away from that scenario,” a diplomat said.

But another diplomat said Assad’s acknowledgment that he has nonconventional weapons was an “act of desperation by a regime on its last breath, behaving like a wounded animal who would use anything to fight back”.

Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman and Dan Williams; Editing by Giles Elgood

Egypt ends gas deal with Israel, stakeholder says


Egypt’s energy companies have terminated a long-term deal to supply Israel with gas after the cross-border pipeline sustained months of sabotage since a revolt last year, a stakeholder in the deal said on Sunday.

Ampal-American Israel Corporation, a partner in the East Mediterreanean Gas Company (EMG), which operates the pipeline, said the Egyptian companies involved had notified EMG they were “terminating the gas and purchase agreement”.

The company said in a statement that the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation and Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company had notified them of the decision, adding that “EMG considers the termination attempt unlawful and in bad faith, and consequently demanded its withdrawal”.

It said EMG, Ampal, and EMG’s other international shareholders were “considering their options and legal remedies as well as approaching the various governments”.

Before the sabotage, Egypt supplied about 40 percent of Israel’s natural gas, which is the country’s main energy source.

Israeli officials have said the country was at risk of facing summer power outages due to energy shortages.

Companies invested in the Israeli-Egyptian venture have taken a hit from numerous explosions of the cross-border pipeline and are seeking compensation from the Egyptian government of billions of dollars.

Ampal and two other companies have sought $8 billion in damages from Egypt for not safeguarding their investment.

The Egyptian decision is a potential blow to the country’s ties with Israel, already tested by the toppling of Israeli ally President Hosni Mubarak a year ago.

Egypt was the first of two Arab countries to sign a peace treaty with Israel, in 1979, followed by Jordan in 1994.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Michael Roddy

Remove Israeli envoy, stop gas exports, Egyptian parliament demands


The Egyptian parliament voted unanimously on a statement calling for the deportation of Israel’s ambassador and stopping gas exports to Israel.

The People’s Assembly passed the resolution Monday night stating that the halting of gas exports is in protest against attacks by Israel on Gaza.

The measure also called for the withdrawal of the Egyptian ambassador from Tel Aviv, according to Al Masry Al Youm (the Egypt Independent) daily newspaper and a renewal of the Arab boycott against Israel.

“Egypt after the revolution will never be a friend of the Zionist entity, the first enemy of Egypt and the Arab nation,” the resolution reportedly said, and demanded that the Egyptian government review all its relations and agreements with that “enemy,” according to Al Masry.

The motion is largely symbolic, according to The Associated Press, because only the ruling Military Council, the country’s current government, can make such decisions.

People’s Assembly Speaker Saad al-Katatny asked a special parliamentary committee to take the demands to the government, according to Al Masry.

Blast hits Egypt gas pipeline serving Jordan, Israel


An Egyptian pipeline carrying gas to Israel and Jordan was bombed on Monday, the 13th such attack since President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011, witnesses said.

The attack on the installation that crosses the increasingly volatile Sinai region occurred in the Massaeed area west of the Mediterranean coastal town of al-Arish, in north Sinai.

Witnesses in al-Arish told Reuters that two blasts were set off within 15 m (yards) of each other using remote-controlled explosive devices.

The bombs were planted by at least six armed men who arrived in two pickup trucks, the witnesses added.

Security in Sinai was relaxed after Mubarak’s fall as the police presence thinned out across Egypt.

No group has claimed responsibility for the pipeline attacks.

Egypt’s 20-year gas deal with Israel, signed in the Mubarak era, is unpopular with some Egyptians, with critics accusing Israel of not paying enough for the fuel.

Previous explosions sometimes have forced weeks-long shutdowns along the pipeline run by Gasco, a subsidiary of the national gas company EGAS.

Gasco said it had resumed pumping gas to households and industrial factories in al-Arish and began experimental pumping to Jordan and Israel last week.

The pipeline has been shut since an explosion on Feb. 5.

Egypt said in November it would tighten security along the pipeline by installing alarms and recruiting security patrols from Bedouin tribesmen in the area.

Reporting By Yusri Mohamed; Writing by Tamim Elyan; Editing by Michael Roddy.

Iran parliament vote seen bolstering Supreme Leader


Iranians voted on Friday in a parliamentary election likely to reinforce Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s power over rival hardliners led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iranian leaders were looking for a high turnout to ease an acute crisis of legitimacy caused by Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009 when widespread accusations of fraud plunged the Islamic Republic into the worst unrest of its 33-year history.

Iran also faces economic turmoil compounded by Western sanctions over a nuclear program that has prompted threats of military action by Israel, whose leader meets U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House on Monday.

The vote in Iran is only a limited test of political opinion since leading reformist groups stayed out what became a contest between the Khamenei and Ahmadinejad camps.

“Whenever there has been more enmity towards Iran, the importance of the elections has been greater,” Khamenei, 72, said after casting his vote before television cameras.

“The arrogant powers are bullying us to maintain their prestige. A high turnout will be better for our nation … and for preserving security.”

The vote will have scant impact on Iran’s foreign or nuclear policies, in which Khamenei already has the final say, but could strengthen the Supreme Leader’s hand before the presidential vote next year. Ahmadinejad, 56, cannot run for a third term.

Iranians may be preoccupied with sharply rising prices and jobs, but it is Iran’s supposed nuclear ambitions that worry the outside world. Western sanctions over the nuclear program have hit imports, driving prices up and squeezing ordinary Iranians.

OBAMA-NETANYAHU TALKS

Just days away from the talks between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, their aides were scrambling to bridge differences over what Washington fears could be a premature Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites.

Netanyahu will press Obama, who is facing a presidential election campaign, to stress publicly the nuclear “red lines” that Iran must not cross, Israeli officials say.

Global oil prices have spiked to 10-month highs on tensions between the West and Iran, OPEC’s second biggest crude producer.

The election took place without two main opposition leaders. Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, who both ran for president in 2009, have been under house arrest for more than a year.

No independent observers are on hand to monitor the voting or check the turnout figures that officials will announce.

Former president Hashemi Rafsanjani made a pointed reference to the outcome of the 2009 vote, which he questioned at the time. “If the election outcome turns out to be what the people cast in the ballot boxes, God willing we will have a good parliament,” the elder statesman said after voting in Tehran.

Ahmadinejad also voted, but state media did not immediately show this or report any comment he might have made. The outgoing parliament is due to grill him next week on his handling of the economy and other issues – an unprecedented humiliation for an incumbent president, but one he may use to hit back at his foes.

Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0430 GMT) and were due to close at 6 p.m., but might stay open longer. Ballots are counted manually and Iran may have to wait three days for full results.

Voting was slow at first in affluent northern Tehran but picked up later. Voters queued up in poorer parts of the capital and in provincial cities, Reuters witnesses said.

“I am here to support my establishment against the enemies’ plot by voting,” said Mahboubeh Esmaili, 28, holding her baby in a queue of about 50 people at a central Tehran polling centre.

SLAP IN FACE

Khamenei has told Iranians that their vote would be a “slap in the face for arrogant powers” such as the United States.

A U.S. official said Iran had clamped down on dissent since the turbulent presidential election nearly three years ago.

“Since then, the regime’s repression and persecution of all who stand up for their universal human rights has only intensified,” U.S. Under Secretary of State Mario Otero told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said in her report to the council she was alarmed at a “surge in executions” reported in Iran in the past year. She gave no figures.

The two main groups competing for parliament’s 290 seats are the United Front of Principlists, which includes Khamenei loyalists, and the Resistance Front that backs Ahmadinejad.

The president, a blacksmith’s son, has long appealed to Iran’s rural poor with his humble image and cash handouts from state funds, but spiraling prices have dented his popularity.

Energy and food imports have been hit by sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to halt sensitive nuclear work that the West suspects is a cover for a drive to build atomic bombs. Tehran says it has only peaceful aims, such as generating electricity.

Prices of staple goods, many of them imported, have soared because the Iranian rial’s value has sunk as U.S. and European Union sanctions on the financial and oil sectors begin to bite.

Ahmadinejad’s critics accuse him of making things worse for low-income Iranians, saying his decision to replace food and fuel subsidies with direct monthly payments since 2010 has fuelled inflation, officially running at around 21 percent.

ALLIES FALL OUT

The president enjoyed solid support from Khamenei in the months of “Green Movement” protests that followed the 2009 election, but the two men have fallen out badly since then.

For Khamenei, the parliamentary election could reinforce his grip on power against a president seen as trying to undermine the clergy’s central role in Iran’s complex political hierarchy.

Ahmadinejad and his “deviant current” allies have alarmed Khamenei’s conservative camp by emphasizing nationalist themes of Iranian history and culture over the Islamic ruling system introduced by revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Khamenei succeeded Khomeini, who died in 1989.

Some Iranian media reports said Ahmadinejad hoped to secure the election of his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaie, to succeed him. Khamenei will want to install one of his own loyalists to prevent further divisions within the ruling elite.

Powerful establishment groups, including senior clerics, the elite Revolutionary Guards and bazaar merchants, formed an alliance to back Khamenei loyalists in the parliamentary vote.

Not everyone can run in Iranian elections. The hard-line Guardian Council, made up of six clerics and six jurists who vet candidates, approved more than 3,400 out of 5,382 applicants.

Some politicians said the council barred many established Ahmadinejad supporters, forcing him to pick political unknowns.

The rift between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad broke into the open in April 2011 when the Supreme Leader forced the president to reinstate an intelligence minister he had insisted on firing.

Khamenei has kept up the pressure in recent months. Dozens of Ahmadinejad allies have been detained or sacked for links to the “deviant current”.

Most strikingly, the president’s media adviser, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, has received a one-year jail term for insulting Khamenei, which an appeal court upheld on Wednesday.

The authorities suggested that malign foreign hands were trying to disrupt the election.

“So far, 10 saboteurs who came to Tehran from outside the country have been arrested and are now in detention,” Mohammad Taqi Baqeri, a Tehran election official was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency. He gave no details.

Additional reporting by Hashem Kalantari in Tehran, Marcus George in Dubai and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Egypt arrests man in connection with gas line attacks


An Egyptian man, 20, has been arrested in connection with several attacks on a pipeline in the Sinai that carries gas to Israel.

The Egyptian state news agency MENA made the announcement Tuesday. The suspect is reported to be a resident of Arish, near the site of several of the attacks.

Articles on how to manufacture and use explosives were found on the suspect’s laptop, MENA reported, according to Reuters.

The pipeline has been attacked 10 times in the last year, since President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, forcing major disruptions in the gas supply to Israel.

Egypt supplies Israel with more than 40 percent of its natural gas needs to produce electricity; electricity prices have risen by more than 10 percent in Israel since the attacks began.

Egyptian gas flows again to Israel


Egypt has renewed pumping gas to Israel through a pipeline that has been attacked six times in less than a year.

It is the first time that gas has flowed to Israel through the pipeline since July.

The return of Egyptian gas began on Sunday, after a short test the previous week. Gas flow was also renewed to Jordan, which recently agreed to pay a higher price for its gas, Reuters reported. Egypt is expected to demand that Israel agree to a price hike as well, according to reports.

Egypt supplies Israel with more than 40 percent of its natural gas needs to produce electricity; electricity prices have risen by more than 10 percent in Israel since the attacks began.

The most recent attack came in late September, when three men fired on the pipeline at a pumping station in the northern Sinai.

The first attack on the pipeline came in February during the uprisings against deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In July, machine-gun toting men overtook guards before blowing up a station in the Sinai.

Selling gas to Israel has been unpopular on the Egyptian street since the opening of the pipeline in 2008. Mubarak has been accused of giving Israel a sweetheart deal on the gas, since Egypt lost more than $714 million on the pact.

Blast destroys Egypt gas pipeline to Israel, Jordan


An explosion destroyed an Egyptian pipeline in Sinai on Tuesday that supplies Israel and Jordan with gas, security sources and witnesses said.

The security sources said the explosion happened west of the city of al-Arish. Witnesses said 15-metre high flames could be seen shooting up from the pipeline. The cause of the blast was not immediately known and there were no immediate reports of casualties.

The army surrounded the area and the company operating the pipeline closed it down after the blast, which was heard far away from the scene.

The pipeline has been repeatedly blown up by assailants believed to be opposed to selling Egyptian gas to Israel since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February.

The last attack occurred in July when men with machine guns in a small truck forced guards at a station out and blew it up.

The pipeline is run by Gasco, Egypt’s gas transport company which is a subsidiary of the national gas company EGAS.

Reporting by Sami Aboudi; Editing by David Stamp

Egyptian gas pipeline to Israel attacked for sixth time


A pipeline that carries gas from Egypt to Israel was attacked for the sixth time in less than a year.

Three men fired on the pipeline at a pumping station in the northern Sinai on Tuesday morning, according to reports. The pipeline, which also serves Jordan then exploded.

It was not immediately known what affect the explosion would have on gas supplies to Israel and Jordan. Israel has not been receiving gas from Egypt since the pipeline was last attacked in July.

Egypt supplies Israel with more than 40 percent of its natural gas needs to produce electricity; electricity prices have risen by more than 10 percent in Israel since the attacks began.

The first attack on the pipeline came in February during the uprisings against deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In July, machine-gun toting men overtook guards before blowing up a station in the Sinai.

Selling gas to Israel has been unpopular on the Egyptian street since the opening of the pipeline in 2008. Mubarak has been accused of giving Israel a sweetheart deal on the gas, since Egypt lost more than $714 million on the pact.

Egypt resumes some gas flow to Israel after attack


Egypt resumed supplying some gas to Israel following an attack on the gas line, but only a small portion of the gas due is being supplied.

Terrorists on July 4 blew up a section of the pipeline that carries gas from Egypt to Israel and Jordan, the third time that the pipeline has been sabotaged in the past six months.

Egypt supplies Israel with more than 40 percent of its natural gas needs to produce electricity.

The state-owned Israel Electric Corp. told Reuters that the gas flowing again from Egypt was equivalent to between 30 percent and 40 percent of the agreed-upon amount.

The supply of gas from Egypt was shut off for a month and never returned to full levels after terrorists in the Sinai blew up a section of the pipeline in February during the uprisings against deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

In March, explosives failed to detonate in a second attempt by terrorists to bomb the pipeline. Another attack on April 27 blew up part of the pipeline in El-Arish, again halting the gas supply.

The electric company said it would increase electricity production at its coal-powered plants in order to meet electricity demands, as well as use diesel and fuel oil.

Egypt still not supplying gas to Israel


Egypt has not resumed supplying gas to Israel, despite a month ago repairing a pipeline that was attacked by terrorists.

Egypt’s oil minister said Thursday that the need to secure the pipeline against future attacks, not politics, were preventing the resumption of supplying gas to Israel.

U.S. investors in the East Mediterranean Gas Co., which owns the pipeline, have taken legal steps against the Egyptian government to make sure that gas flow resumes to Israel.

Egypt supplies Israel with more than 40 percent of its natural gas needs to produce electricity.

The supply of gas from Egypt was shut off for a month and never returned to full levels after terrorists in the Sinai tried to blow up the pipeline in February during the uprisings against deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. On March 27, explosives failed to detonate in a second attempt by terrorists to bomb the pipeline, when the gas supply again was completely halted.

Selling gas to Israel has been unpopular on the Egyptian street since the opening of the pipeline in 2008. Mubarak has been accused of giving Israel a sweetheart deal on the gas, since Egypt lost more than $714 million on the deal.

Egypt has said it will demand a retroactive payment of the difference between the reduced prices it received and market value on the natural gas Israel purchased under Mubarak.

Candidates to replace Mubarak as president have said they plan to renegotiate the contract with Israel.

Egypt questions Mubarak on gas deal with Israel


Egyptian judicial authorities have extended deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s detention to question him regarding a natural gas deal with Egypt.

Egypt lost more than $714 million in the deal, Egypt’s prosecutor said in a statement, the New York Times reported.

The extension of Mubarak’s remand, announced April 22, came as former Egyptian oil minister, Samih Fahmy, and five other top officials were arrested and imprisoned prior to the start of an investigation into the deal.

Egypt supplies more than 40 percent of the gas that Israel needs to provide the country with electricity. Candidates to replace Mubarak have said they plan to renegotiate the contract with Israel.

Egypt’s new foreign minister said earlier this month that Egypt will demand a retroactive payment of the difference between the reduced prices it received and market value on the natural gas it purchased under Mubarak.

The pipeline between Egypt and Israel opened in 2008. Selling gas to Israel was unpopular on the Egyptian street from the time the pipeline opened.

The supply of Egyptian gas to Israel has not returned to full levels since terrorists in the Sinai tried to blow up the pipeline in February during the uprisings against Mubarak in Egypt.

Egypt resumes supplying gas to Israel


Egypt resumed supplying Israel with natural gas after a six-week interruption.

The gas flow resumed late Tuesday night after a fifth delay on Monday. The break in supply came after a gas line was sabotaged on Feb. 5 during the uprising in Egypt that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

A leak was discovered shortly before the gas supply was set to resume Monday, the Ampal-American Israel Corp said in a statement.

Egypt supplies more than 40 percent of the gas that Israel needs to provide the country with electricity. The supplies had been expected to resume last month. It is not clear if Israel will now receive gas in the same quantities as previously.

The Israel Electric Company earlier this month received permission from Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry to use diesel and fuel oil to run power plants in the absence of the natural gas.

Some Israeli media have accused the Egyptian interim military government authorities of delaying the supply of gas to Israel for political reasons.

Egypt has suggested that it will not supply the usual amounts of gas when the pipeline is up and running again, according to reports, and wants to renegotiate better terms for its contract with Israel for supplying natural gas.

Egyptian company won’t restore gas to Israel


An Egyptian company will not resume delivering natural gas to Israel as expected, one month after its pipeline was sabotaged.

The East Mediterranean Gas consortium, which supplies 45 percent of the gas needed to produce Israel’s electricity, has missed four promised deadlines to reinstate the gas supply since the pipeline was damaged in a terrorist explosion Feb. 5. The attack was part of the uprising in Egypt that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

The Israel Electric Company has requested permission from Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry to use diesel and fuel oil to run the power plant, Haaretz reported. The electric company has warned of possible brownouts throughout Israel due to the gas shortage and the fact that the American company Noble Energy will temporarily halt its supply of natural gas to do needed maintenance work.

Israel-Iran war talk blamed for oil price frenzy


WASHINGTON (JTA)—Even if the tough talk between Israel and Iran never comes to blows, it’s already hitting consumers where it hurts—at the gas pump.

Experts say that talk of an Israeli strike on Iran is a key part of what’s unsettling already volatile oil markets.

“It’s clearly having an effect on oil markets as they continue their march upward,” said Tom Drennen, an oil markets expert at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York.

Oil prices soared to a record high of more than $144 a barrel last Wednesday after Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki suggested to the United Nations that Iran would hit back in the event of an Israeli strike.

And after Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz said last month that an Israeli strike would be “inevitable” if Iran develops a nuclear bomb, oil prices had their highest single-day jump in history.

Mofaz, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, is also the chief negotiator in the U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue. Some pointed to his pronouncements as evidence that his Bush administration interlocutors view such a possibility positively, but others downplayed Mofaz’s remarks as indeliberate blustering.

Even if it’s all just talk, the problem for consumers is that this intensified speculation drives the markets.

“Traders on the floor look out into forward months, and when there’s a factor that will disrupt supplies, they will lock supplies a bit further out,” said David Pomfrey, the deputy director for energy and national security at the independent Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Securing supplies ahead of time keeps oil off the market, driving up prices.

Market fluctuation is more common in markets driven primarily by rumors and speculation rather than facts, Pomfrey said.

“It’s a network of people whispering to each other,” he said.

Speculators are now asking whether an Israeli strike on Iran would be limited to nuclear targets or if Israel would try to hit other sites as part of its attack strategy. For example, if Iran’s ports were damaged, the Islamic Republic’s major oil trading partners, such as China, might suffer. That likely would prompt a run on other markets.

Then there’s the question of the Iranian response.

“Would they try to use the leverage they have to cut off their oil flows into the world markets?” Pomfrey asked. “It would cost them, but it does allow them to impose penalties.”

The nightmare scenario would be if Iran used its regional military superiority to shut down the Straits of Hormuz, a key passage for oil tankers. That would cut supplies from the other major producers, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Persian Gulf emirates.

“The whole notion that if something happened and Iran was willing to shut down the straits, that would send prices who knows where,” Drennen said.
Experts say the effect of tensions with Iran should not be overstated. Unrest within Nigeria, another major oil supplier, also was a major factor in driving up prices.

“It’s hard to even tell” what the major factor is, said Michael O’Hanlon, a specialist in U.S. national security policy at the Brookings Institution. “The market is so easily spooked, it’s hard to separate anything from the noise.”

In recent weeks, speculation that Israel might strike Iran in the diplomatic dead zone between the U.S. election on Nov. 7 and the presidential inauguration on Jan. 21 has intensified in Washington.

That timing would give Israel a chance to get backing for a strike from President Bush, a staunch defender of Israel’s right to a pre-emptive defense, as well as spare the incoming president the difficulty of explaining such an attack.

The effect on markets of attack talk likely was a factor in this week’s effort by U.S. officials to tone down the rhetoric, Drennen said.

Bush, for instance, said Wednesday that he had made it clear to Israel that diplomacy was still the preferred option with Iran. And Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned of the dire consequences of an Israeli strike.

“The U.S. would be thinking very seriously that they would be very careful about what they say in public,” Drennen said. “Any notion that they are considering such a move or Israel is considering such a move will have an affect. Every $2 increase in a barrel of oil means another five cents at the pump, and I’m not sure how much more consumers are going to take.”

 

That gas pump is a giant Saudi tzedakah box


The 5767 High Holiday tallies are in from synagogues around the country, and it appears that U.S. Jewry has topped all previous pledge drive records. It is estimated that this year,

American Jews will send approximately $660 million to Saudi Arabia.

Yes, you read that correctly. You didn’t fold a piece of cardboard or stuff an envelope, but the commitment was as good as a pledge. Maybe even better. After all, the Saudis won’t have to harass you to pay up.

The United States imports about 1.5 million barrels of Saudi oil every day. At $60 per barrel, that comes to about $33 billion per year.

Of course, we Jews are a mere 2 percent of the U.S. population, so the Jewish community is only sending about $660 million. With 6 million Jews here, that’s $110 per head.

My guess is the average Jew did not give that much to all the Jewish charities combined. I hope I’m wrong. But that gas pump? It’s a giant Saudi tzedakah box.

To break it down a little further, Saudi Arabia supplies 1.5 million barrels per day — about 7.5 percent of U.S. daily oil consumption. But only about half the price of every gallon of gasoline comes from oil; the other half comes from refining, transporting, storing, marketing and taxes. So, every time you fill up your car, you’re sending about 3.75 percent of the tab — or 11 cents of every $3 gallon — to Saudi Arabia. If you drive 15,000 miles a year and get 15 miles per gallon, you buy 1,000 gallons of gasoline, and Saudi Arabia collects $110 -will that be cash or credit?

Of course, not all Saudis are funding Hamas or Al Qaeda. Still, the Los Angeles Times quotes a senior Al Qaeda operative telling a subordinate, “Don’t ever worry about money, because Saudi Arabia’s money is your money.” The New York Times has reported that at least half of Hamas’ operating budget comes from people in Saudi Arabia. And the general counsel for the U.S. Department of Treasury testified that Saudi Arabia is “the ‘epicenter’ of financing for Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.”

So, there is little doubt that every time we fill our gas tanks, some of our money finds its way to people who want Americans and Jews dead, and who work to achieve that goal every day.

We’ve also pledged money to Venezuela and its dynamic President Hugo Cha A¡vez. You remember him. He’s the charismatic leader who, last year, railed against “some minorities … the descendants of those who crucified Christ [and] took possession of all the planet’s gold.”

Later, he called Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and himself a “great alliance of brothers.” This year, he’s supporting Iran’s drive to acquire nuclear “capabilities.” The American Jewish communal pledge to him? Another $600 million-plus.

I first did this rough math exercise last year, when my Lexus lease was coming to a close. I figured out that with my nice car, which was (realistically) getting about 15 miles per gallon, I was

sending more than $100 per year to Saudi Arabia, $100 to Senor Cha A¡vez and still more to Arab Gulf states and Iran.
It made me sick. So, with the lease coming due, I unloaded the Lexus and purchased a Toyota Prius. My license plate holder now reads: “My car $tarve$ Terrorist$,” although, as a friend told me — from her bike — that’s not exactly accurate, even if it does get 45 miles per gallon. Party pooper.

Still, I feel pretty good. If everyone did this, there’d be no U.S. need for petroleum from despots.

I realize for some, the transition to a hybrid may not be easy. Really, I do. It’s that irksome status factor: “Will my clients bolt when they see me in a Prius rather than my usual Bentley?” you ask yourself.

Relax. In addition to its eco-chic, the beauty of a hybrid — especially the Prius, with its UFO-like styling — is that it screams: “You have no idea how much money I have, but you do know I care about the world we live in.” And you don’t have to feel sheepish when you’re seen driving only a Lexus, Mercedes or Beemer, or — heaven forbid — a lesser car.

I’ve also heard many otherwise-smart people pooh-pooh the economics of hybrids. Assuming the authoritative tone of investment bankers advising on a big IPO, they tell anyone willing to listen that spending extra money on a hybrid “just isn’t cost-effective; it’ll take years to pay for itself.” To which I respond, “What’s the payback on your moonroof? How about those plush leather seats; how long do they take to pay for themselves?”

Why do some people who consider themselves patriots, environmentalists, lovers of peace pull out green visors and their sharpest pencils when evaluating a vehicle that can dramatically cut their oil consumption and thereby reduce terrorism and Islamic extremism, military spending, air pollution and global warming?

Sure, my seat may have been a bit more comfortable in the Lexus, but my head rests a lot more easily in the Prius. Figure that into the price of your car and your gasoline. And then get a hybrid and welch on that pledge.

After all, the Saudis won’t be harassing you to pay up.