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Israel Jittery About Gas Supply From Egypt

JERUSALEM (AP) - An explosion at an Egyptian gas terminal that disrupted the supply of fuel to Israel had Israeli officials pressing Sunday to speed development of a natural gas deposit that they say can make Israel energy independent.

Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau wants the government to back loans so financing can be obtained to develop the Tamar field, off Israel's coast in the Mediterranean Sea, a spokesman said. Landau also favors exempting the field's developers from a proposed windfall tax.

"We have to do everything to improve Israel's energy security," Landau told Israel Radio on Sunday. "It is Israel's obligation to remove as soon as possible every obstacle" to developing Tamar, he said.

Landau's spokesman, Chen Ben-Lulu, said the goal was to have gas from Tamar flowing into Israel by 2013. The explosion in Egypt on Saturday "just proves" the need to do so, he added.

"We want energy independence and to achieve it as soon as possible," Ben-Lulu said.

The explosion in Egypt's northern Sinai Peninsula on Saturday came amid a popular uprising against longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The blast set off a massive fire that was contained by shutting off the flow of gas to Jordan and Israel. Egypt's natural gas company said the fire was caused by a gas leak, but local officials said an explosive device was detonated inside the terminal.

Egypt is to sell Israel 1.7 billion cubic meters a year for at least 15 years under a deal that went into effect three years ago. Israeli industry analysts see that flow as important to diversifying Israel's fuel sources and for political relations.

At the same time, the turmoil in Egypt, which supplies up to half of the natural gas that Israel currently uses to power its electrical plants, has emphasized to Israelis the dangers of relying on other sources for fuel.

Israel's Tamar field is said to contain about 8 trillion cubic meters of gas. In December, gas exploration companies led by U.S.-based Noble Energy announced that another deposit in Israeli waters, Leviathan, contained some 16 trillion cubic meters.

The finds - which Lebanon says, without providing proof, lie partly in Lebanese waters - are enough to keep Israel energy self-sufficient for decades, Israeli experts say.

"Israel needs to achieve security of energy supply. This is one of the most fundamental security and economic aspects of a country," said Gina Cohen, an electricity and gas industry consultant based in Israel.

The notion of energy independence is a radical shift for Israel, a country that has had to haul oil from Mexico and coal from South Africa because its oil-rich Arab neighbors won't sell it fuel.

The supply of gas from Egypt has always been dogged by fears that the flow could be disrupted by saboteurs or political forces hostile to the deal and Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the government had been prepared for the possible disruption of Egyptian supplies and arranged for other sources to compensate.

"Because of these advance preparations, no disruptions in the gas supply to Israel are expected," he said.

Power supplied by state-run Israel Electric Corp., overwhelmingly the largest client for natural gas in Israel, will not be affected by the Egyptian cutoff, Israeli officials said.