The government’s ability to garner a majority in the Knesset for its proposal to transfer authority to approve its natural gas agreement from Economy Minister Arye Deri to the full cabinet, which is necessary to enact the deal in the coming months, remained in doubt ahead of Monday’s vote.
The gas outline was still on the Knesset’s docket for Monday at press time, as was transferring the authority to use Article 52 of the Antitrust Law, which allows an economy minister to circumvent the antitrust commissioner’s objections if there are national security or foreign policy concerns, since Deri refuses to sign use the workaround on his own.
However, in light of continued uncertainty as to whether or not the coalition could pull together enough votes on either item, there is a chance that the vote will be postponed.
Without a majority to transfer Deri’s authority, the government will not be able to move forward with the gas outline itself anytime soon, leaving it exposed to the possibility that gas-field developers Noble Energy and Delek Group will turn to arbitration.
Several sources close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were unable to answer the question as to how he could get a majority for transferring Deri’s authority.
The coalition already failed to do so in July, when the vote was removed from the Knesset agenda late at night after the prime minister spent hours trying to convince Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), Construction Minister Yoav Galant (Kulanu) and Welfare Minister Haim Katz (Likud) to vote for the transfer of authority. They refused to vote because they have financial conflicts of interest with the gas deal, even though Article 52 is a technical matter and not the actual outline.
With Kahlon, Galant and Katz’s continued refusal to participate, the coalition is left with only 58 votes.
“I’m not sure how we have a majority, but I’m sure we have one,” one Likud source said Sunday.
Meanwhile, coalition MKs canceled and cut short trips abroad in order not to miss the vote, including Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan, who had traveled to New York to speak on college campuses against the Iran Deal.
Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman said in July he supports the gas deal on principle, but will not help the government overcome a technical barrier, and made no indication of changing his mind before Monday’s vote.
Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh vehemently denied reports that his faction would skip the vote on the gas deal or on the authority transfer in exchange for increased funding for Arab municipalities in the budget, which he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed in a recent meeting.
“The gas fields belong to the citizens and must be a source of income to reduce social and economic gaps and not be sold to tycoons at low prices,” Odeh said Sunday. “The government held discussions [about the gas deal] in the dark, while completely ignoring the public interest. We will vote against the outline and against selling natural resources to the wealthy at the expense of the citizens.”
MK Ahmed Tibi (Joint List) canceled a planned trip to Brussels in order to vote against the gas plan, further belying the reports of Arab MKs facilitating its passage.
Deri’s authority to use Article 52 must be transferred to the government in order for the gas plan to move forward because in December, then-antitrust commissioner David Gilo threatened to declare it a “restrictive agreement” due to Delek and Noble’s market dominance.
Nearly eight months of negotiations between the gas companies and government officials ensued, resulting in a compromise outline.
Then, Deri refused to be the first minister in Israel’s history to use the article, first suggesting that he would do so only if the Knesset approved the gas plan, and then suggesting that the gas deal’s authorization wait for a new antitrust commissioner, a process that could take as long as a year.
Meanwhile, last week, Noble Energy’s chairman, president and CEO David L. Stover said, “It is imperative that the government of Israel follow through on this approved framework without further delay. Noble Energy remains fully prepared, and is well positioned, to take the actions necessary to protect the value of its assets.”
One such action could potentially be arbitration, which the government is trying to avoid.
The latest, cabinet-approved version of the compromise between the government and gas companies, which is also going to a vote on Monday, focuses on pricing; the development of the Leviathan reservoir; and ensuring stability – in addition to previously agreed-upon points regarding the Tamar reservoir, several smaller basins, exports and other issues.
The deal does not have to be approved by the Knesset, but a vote in its favor would be a symbolic victory and strengthen its public standing; the government can still move forward with the plan, even if it is voted down.
If all coalition parties and Yisrael Beytenu vote for the gas plan, it will be approved despite the three ministers’ abstentions.
However, as of Sunday, Kulanu did not commit to supporting the plan. Because of his conflict of interest, Kahlon will not tell his faction how to vote, and it will hold a meeting and make a final decision Monday morning.
According to coalition agreements, all parties in the coalition are committed to vote in favor of policies authorized by the cabinet; however, Kulanu’s faction administration has said it believes there can be exceptions.Sharon Udasin contributed to this report.