Knesset can vote on gas deal even if it’s not necessary, legal adviser says

If the Knesset rejects the gas outline, the government can ignore it, because parliamentary approval is not a prerequisite of enacting the deal.

August 25, 2015 18:13
4 minute read.
Israel's natural gas

Israel's natural gas. (photo credit: MINISTRY OF NATIONAL INFRASTRUCTURES)

The government may bring its natural gas deal to a vote in the Knesset even if it is not required by law to do so, Knesset Legal Adviser Eyal Yinon determined Tuesday.

However, if the Knesset rejects the gas outline, the government can ignore it, because parliamentary approval is not a prerequisite of enacting the deal.

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The government’s decision on how to regulate the pumping and distribution of gas from the Tamar, Leviathan and other natural gas reservoirs only needs to be approved by the cabinet, which it already has been, and Antitrust Commissioner David Gilo, who refuses to sign it because of Delek Group and Noble Energy’s market dominance. Economy Minister Arye Deri could enact the deal by signing what is known as Article 52, to circumvent an antitrust commissioner’s objections because of national security or foreign policy considerations, but he says he will only do so if the Knesset approves the outline.

Since the gas outline is not a bill and there is no procedure in the Knesset’s rulebook as to how the legislature could approve it, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein turned to Yinon to find out if Deri’s condition is even possible.

In his response to Edelstein, Yinon pointed out several occasions on which the government brought important decisions it made to the Knesset, despite not being required to do so. One was the Gaza disengagement plan in October 2004, which was later passed as a law. Another was allowing Egyptian troops in the Philadelphia Corridor in 2005.

“Even though, in general, the government does not bring to the Knesset matters that are left to the executive branch…it saw as the right thing to do in exceptional cases in topics of great importance or centrality in the public agenda and asked the Knesset to back its decisions,” Yinon wrote. “I do not think it would be right to block this possibility, which could increase the Knesset’s involvement in making weighty decisions.”

Yinon also delineated the procedure for the Knesset’s approval of the gas plan, which may be brought to a vote during the current summer recess.

The government must bring the plan to the Knesset Secretary, who then asks the Speaker to put it on the agenda. The Speaker may decide whether that is justified or not; if he decides it is, a date is set for the vote, at least two days in advance – the amount of time given to MKs to review a government bill before its first reading.

If such a vote happens, the government will present the bill in the plenum first, and each MK will have the chance to speak for up to three minutes.

The government may enact the plan regardless of the vote’s result, though Eyal said “the government could not bring the outline to be approved by the Knesset, and once it decides to do so, it would be unreasonable to ignore the Knesset’s decision. However, in the end, it is the government’s decision, not the Knesset’s.”

As for Deri’s use of Article 52, the situation is slightly different. He is required by law to consult with the Knesset Economics Committee before using it, but, like in the case of the entire gas deal, he may choose not to follow the panel’s recommendation, as legally, he only has to hear and seriously consider it.

Yinon also mentioned the clause of the gas deal meant to “create a stable regulatory environment,” in which the government committed not to make regulatory or legislative changes for at least two years, and if a private law changing the plan is proposed by an MK, the government will oppose it. If such a bill becomes law, the government would work to have it canceled.

“[This] problematic and unusual instruction…does not apply to the Knesset and approving the outline does not tie the Knesset’s hands or those of future Knessets in relation to laws connected to the gas outline,” Yinon stated.

Knesset Economics Committee chairman Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union) was not impressed with Yinon’s opinion, writing that “it proves that the intention of bringing the gas outline to the Knesset is nothing more than a performance by [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] for [Deri].”

If the government brings the gas outline to the Knesset, it may not have a majority to approve it. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, Construction Minister Yoav Galant and Welfare Minister Haim Katz all refuse to vote on anything related to the deal, because of conflicts of interest, as they each have financial connections with companies involved, leaving the coalition with only 58 votes to the opposition’s 59.

The coalition may have even fewer votes, because Kulanu has yet to commit to approving the gas outline. However, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz and others in Likud have said that the coalition agreement requires them to do so, because it says all coalition factions will vote in favor of government decisions.

Yisrael Beytenu may vote with the coalition, with party chairman MK Avigdor Liberman saying earlier this week that the faction needs to make a final decision, but he expects it to favor the plan.

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