The Knesset building in Givat Ram, Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
When the coalition could not get enough votes to move the government’s gas plan forward Monday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to have no choice but to postpone the vote indefinitely and to capitulate to the opposition and opposition-within-the-coalition’s fairly reasonable demand for transparency. There surely were quite a few people in the opposition patting themselves on the back and claiming a victory on Monday, when Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz presented the details of the government’s gas plan in a press conference and gave the public three weeks to submit comments.
There’s still a chance that a majority of the Knesset won’t be willing to vote in favor unless something else changes, because transparency, in this case, is nothing but a smokescreen for the real reasons the gas plan is stalled.
The Knesset won’t be voting on the gas deal itself – it doesn’t have to, by law, which is why politicians treated last night’s vote, before it was canceled, like a referendum on the still-secret plan.
The vote was actually about authorizing Economy Minister Arye Deri to give up his authority to invoke a never-before-used clause barring an antitrust commissioner intervening in a “restrictive agreement” for national security or foreign policy reasons. Doing so would allow the gas deal to be pushed through despite Antitrust Commissioner David Gilo’s protestations, but Deri did not want to take responsibility for the action himself, and passed the hot potato to the entire cabinet.
Once it became clear that the coalition did not have a majority to approve the move – more on how that happened later – Netanyahu started to put pressure on Deri to just take responsibility he was supposed to have in the first place so the government can finish authorizing the plan and enact it without having to enlist 61 votes.
As an MK who had spoken to Deri Monday night said, the Shas chairman was “caught between Arye and Machlouf.” During the last election, Deri insisted that his middle name, Machlouf, be used, emphasizing his Moroccan roots and his connection to what he called the “transparent people,” the poor. Arye is Deri’s side that understands the gas companies and Netanyahu’s arguments that the deal balances their interests and the country’s, and Machlouf was telling Deri to oppose the gas deal and ingratiate himself to the social warriors calling to squeeze the gas tycoons for every last agora.
Deri decided not to decide, and would not back out from his refusal to keep the authority in his own’s hands, so the matter will still have to go to a Knesset vote.
When that vote comes, there is no indication that the three ministers who refused to participate in it on Monday will change their minds.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, Construction Minister Yoav Galant and Welfare Minister Haim Katz all stand to gain financially if the deal is approved in its current form, which is why Kahlon recused himself from all gas-related decisions and the three skipped the cabinet vote on the plan.
The Knesset, however, is a different story, and Legal Advisor Eyal Yinon said there is no reason for lawmakers with a conflict of interest to recuse themselves as long as they declare that conflict to the Knesset Ethics Committee. Still, no amount of cajoling from Netanyahu and coalition chairman Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud) could convince the trio to vote to either line their pockets or empty them.
Even though Kulanu asked for transparency – along with a second pipeline from Leviathan and a lower price ceiling than $5.40 per mmBtu – releasing the plan to the public doesn’t change Kahlon and Galant’s reasoning for skipping the vote.
At one point, the coalition was relying on Yisrael Beytenu to cover up for the missing ministers – and MK Michael Oren (Kulanu) who is on a book tour – from the opposition, since the party supports the gas plan itself, much of which was developed under their Energy Minister Uzi Landau in the previous government.
The coalition should have realized that Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman takes his self-appointed job of trolling Netanyahu whenever possible seriously. At the last minute, Liberman said that, even if he thinks the gas deal is great and those who oppose it – specifically MKs Shelly Yacimovich(Zionist Union) and Zehava Gal-On (Mertez) and The Marker – are “Bolsheviks” who resent other people’s wealth, he is not the government’s “babysitter” and will not help Netanyahu out just because he can’t convince his own ministers to either take responsibility (Deri) or vote (Kahlon, Galant, Katz).
And while Liberman, the man who abolished all press briefings from the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, ironically was also outraged at the lack of transparency relating to the gas deal, his reason for planning to vote “no” on Deri giving up authority had nothing to do with releasing the details to the public.
The coalition’s last hope is Yesh Atid, whose chairman Yair Lapid said on Monday that they will only support the gas deal if prices are regulated. The plan released Tuesday says there will be a ceiling for the price of natural gas for six years until competition is introduced and companies will never be allowed to export gas for a lower price than it is offering the Israeli offer.
This is the one place where transparency may have helped a bit. Releasing the actual details of how gas prices will be limited showed that the deal is not exactly what Lapid demanded, but it could give him a way to soften his stance and support the plan, which was partly developed while he was Finance Minister. Yesh Atid’s spokesman said the party may update its position after properly studying and fully understanding the deal.
At the end of the day, the government may have given the gas plan’s critics something they wanted – transparency – but it doesn’t mean it will get what it needs in return – votes.