by Arieh O'Sullivan

Mary Landrieu, a powerful U.S. senator and member of the Appropriations Committee, says military aid to Israel shouldn't be cut despite the American government's severe budgetary problems.

"I support the aid to Israel and we are going to hold the line on that," Sen. Landrieu told The Media Line. "There are pressures on our budget, but we really value our relationship with Israel and want to see it strengthened. America does have very serious budgetary problems, but foreign aid represents less than 1 percent of the total budget of the United States."

Israel is the biggest recipient of American aid, but with Washington facing a huge budget gap, calls have mounted to trim the $3 billion the United States provides the Jewish state annually. This week, veteran Washington Post columnist Walter Pincus urged the White House to reevaluate the aid, noting that Israel was slashing its own defense budget to step up social spending.

But Landrieu said, "It is very important to maintain that level of aid to Israel."

Landrieu, a member of President Barack Obama's Democratic Party, spoke to The Media Line during a visit to Israel as head of a trade mission seeking collaboration opportunities in oil and gas development with Louisiana and other U.S. Gulf Coast states.

"We have recently managed to do a better job in balancing the environmental needs with the industry and there is great opportunity for Israel, I believe, in this particular region of the United States to cooperate," she said.

Louisiana has 80 percent of the U.S. offshore oil and gas operations, but suffered enormous damage to the Gulf ecosystem when last year's BP Deepwater Horizon spilled more than 200 million gallons of crude oil. Still, Louisiana has some of the world's leading companies that deal in developing oil and gas ventures, something Israel could benefit from in its efforts to extract the massive natural gas deposits found offshore.

"We helped to invent the offshore oil and gas industry and that is specifically why I am here, to understand more about this extraordinary find," Landrieu said.

Landrieu, who is on her third visit to Israel, but the first in 15 years, met with Israeli Minister of National Infrastructures Uzi Landau as well as executives from Nobel Energy Inc., the Houston company partnered in three offshore Israeli gas fields and is now exploring in waters off the island of Cyprus.

The U.S. Geological Survey last year estimated that more than 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas reserves lie under the waters of the eastern Mediterranean, most of it within Israeli waters. The fields are so large that plans are afloat to team up in order to seek investors. An official at Israel's Ministry of National Infrastructures confirmed reports that its director-general Shaul Tzemach had been promoting an initiative for Israel and Cyprus to run a joint campaign to attract American investors for developing the natural gas fields.

Landrieu said she is visiting "to ascertain what the situation here is in Israel so that the service companies along the Gulf Coast can be a part of helping Israel to develop this industry in a very positive and productive way."

"This is an extraordinary game changer for Israel to be energy self sufficient. That is possible. It is not guaranteed, but it is possible if the industry develops correctly," she said.

Landrieu stressed that although she is leading a group of executives from firms in Louisiana and Texas, her mission is not just to promote their companies but to share with Israel the Louisiana and Texas government experience in creating "the right framework of taxation and regulation so that this industry can really flourish."

"We have made a lot of mistakes. But we feel like we have a great deal to offer," she said.

Accompanying the senator were representatives from industries servicing oil and gas exploration companies. Backed by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the five-day trip was organized by the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliances.

"What Israel is going to need is the service companies and the development of the pipeline companies, the suppliers, the supply chain, the infrastructure that is important for this industry to develop. It takes a tremendous amount of investment and infrastructure for the oil and gas to get out of the ground and be transported safely and appropriately. You've got physical security to worry about as well," she said.

"Nobel can't do it all. They are an important player. They were the first, the pioneer, but they will themselves tell you that in order to have a robust industry you have to have many other dimensions of this industry other than the operators themselves," Landrieu said.

The Israeli financial daily Globes reported that the Louisiana-based Kiewit Corporation will construct another drilling platform at the Yam Tethys site off Israel's coast at a cost of $800 million.



"Don't Cut Aid to Israel"