The Golan Heights, a region in the Levant, has been flying the Isreali flag over it for 48 years, but no other country in the world recognizes Israel’s territorial claim over it.
Until recently, it was considered very unlikely large deposits of oil would lie here, but it is here nonetheless. After three test drills under a dormant volcanic field, Israelis and Americans in the oil industry believe they have found reserves with the potential of billions of barrels. So says Yuval Bartov, the chief geologist of Genie Oil & Gas, a subsidiary of American-based Genie Energy.
Still many are skeptical and in the past, there has been optimism before over oil exploration in Israel, but very few have materialized. Only two small oil fields have so far been exploited. Since the oil is laying under what was once an active volcano, an area where there is little experience drilling under, it remains to be seen if exploration will be commercially viable. Even if it were possible, there would be other obstacles.
Genie has tried oil plays before in Israel. In 2008, it invested in shale oil extraction in the Valley of Elah but had to stop its efforts in 2014 when environmentalists were successful in pressuring authorities to withhold the needed licenses. This time, Genie has secured the needed exploratory licenses, despite green and local opposition, but more battles are ahead for the company.
The biggest issue is not the environment but a matter of sovereignty. The Golan Heights are still considered to be illegally-occupied Syrian territory by the international community. In the past, Israel has offered to return the area to Syria in return for a meaningful peace treaty but since the Syrian civil war started in 2011, this has no chance of happening.
A group has started lobbying the Israeli government and international community for the former to take further advantage of the situation in Syria and the latter to recognize Israel’s control over the 460 square mile area on the Golan. A former cabinet secretary to prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, Zvi Hauser, has demanded this should be given as compensation for the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Genie’s official position regarding this is not clear but is more than likely in favor of this. After all several of its key people are Jewish and very involved in Israel and the Golan. Genie’s founder and CEO is Howard Jonas, an important American-Jewish businessman. The president of Genie Oil & Gas, Genie’s Israeli subsidiary is Effie Eitam, former general and Golan settler with close ties to Benyamin Netanyahu.
In America, Genie has been adding influential new members to its already impressive advisory board that includes Dick Cheney and Rupert Murdoch. One recent addition is Larry Summers, Treasury Secretary under Clinton and Director of the National Economic Council under Barack Obama. Other Clinton-era people include Bill Richardson, ex-ambassador to the UN and James Woolsey, the former CIA director.
Israel has always depended on unstable or distant sources for its energy needs. Recent finds of large fields offshore offer opportunities to change that, but the possibility of energy independence has also brought about fighting over pricing, export quotas, and private ownership. Aryeh Deri, Israel’s economy minister, resigned this week over these issues.
The prospect of energy independence for Israel and international recognition of the Golan will remain very appealing, despite all these issues.