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White House sees Egyptian energy forum as a 'roadmap to Middle East peace'

Michael Wilner, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration this week asked Egyptian authorities for a seat at the table at an upcoming energy summit in Cairo, seeking a leading role in the establishment of a major gas forum in the Eastern Mediterranean, two senior administration officials told McClatchy.

U.S. national security officials see strategic value in the success of the Egyptian project, which could eventually wean European allies off their dependence on Russian fuel and provide the basis for improving relationships. "That's the roadmap to Middle East peace," one official said, "building up cooperation that's clearly in your best interests."

During Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's visit to Washington on Tuesday, Trump's top aides asked their Egyptian counterparts if the United States could attend the second meeting of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, a group that Cairo launched in January with Jordan, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

It would be the Trump administration's first time engaging with the forum, designed to allow participating nations to develop their newly discovered gas reserves in concert, optimizing extraction and export options that will help them compete in an increasingly crowded gas market.

"We would like the United States to have an observer role for the forum," one of the officials said. "It's our position that with our technical expertise and our market role, it would be very helpful for us to be involved."

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry would attend the meeting, expected to take place in Cairo, the official hub of the forum, later this month. The goal of the meeting is to "see more of the structure of the forum and the practical implications of it," one senior official said.

 

"Right now, the forum is pretty conceptual. And where the U.S. can play a helpful role is getting it to reality," the official added. "This is going from a concept of peace to a tangible result of it."

The group has only met once before at the ministerial level and brings together parties with historically cold relations, such as Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which administers significant gas fields off the Gazan coast.

Israel first discovered major offshore gas reserves, named Tamar and Leviathan, over the past decade. Major U.S. energy companies had previously shied away from working in Israel due to its tense relations with oil-rich Gulf neighbors and the false assumption that there were no significant energy resources to be found.

The nascent gas forum might change that calculus. U.S.-based ExxonMobil is now considering establishing a presence in Israel and company officials met last month in Houston with Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz for preliminary talks.

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