The High Court of Justice on Sunday heard what might have been the final round of arguments before making a decision shortly that could determine the future of the state’s natural gas policy for decades.
Only a month after the High Court struck down the state’s migrant policy by a 9-0 ruling, a broadened seven-judge panel, presided over by Supreme Court President Asher D. Grunis, pushed hard – both on the state and on its strong opposition – in the debate: Can the government unilaterally decide on natural gas policy, or must the decision be made by the Knesset.
The issue is rooted in a June 23 cabinet decision to maintain 540 billion cubic meters of natural gas at home – thereby limiting exports to 40 percent of the country’s estimated reserves. The petitioners – the state’s opposition – included a range of Knesset members from multiple parties, led by Opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) as well as Economic Affairs Committee chairman Avishai Braverman (Labor), MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) and MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud Beytenu).
Environmental NGOs who were part of the petition included Adam Teva V’Din (Israel Union for Environmental Defense), Preservation of Israeli Gas, the Israel Energy Forum, Yisrael Yekara Lanu (Israel is Dear to Us), the Institute for Economic Planning, Green Course, the Center for Law and Business in Ramat Gan, and Zalul (an environmental organization dedicated to protecting seas and rivers).
Justice Elyakim Rubinstein said a decision that would impact the state for decades should be made by the Knesset in order to better “protect the rights” of all citizens.
The court asked why the state could not arrange to have a law passed on the issue in the Knesset. Rhetorically, it also asked if the state was not confident that it would win a majority.
But the court also pushed hard against the petitioners.
Grunis asked: “Why can’t you pass a law” in the Knesset to fix whatever objections they had with the government’s gas policy decisions, rather than asking the court to step in? Contrary to the petitioners’ argument, multiple justices implied there was a legislative basis – under section 33 of the Oil Law of 1952 – for authorizing the Energy and Water Minister to make decisions about the nation’s gas policy without the need for a new Knesset law.
The petitioners argued that the new gas policy will have a massive impact on the country’s future, including “our children and grandchildren”; that it is an issue of “first impression,” meaning a major new concern that requires serious consideration; and that it is a matter on which the Knesset must pass a new law in order for anything to move forward.
In contrast, the state said that in an ideal world, it might have been more fitting for the Knesset to have weighed in, but from a purely legal perspective, there was no bar to the government deciding the new policy unilaterally.
Any delay could endanger the country’s ability to replenish its energy needs in the near future, and a bill to handle the issue had already been endlessly delayed in the Knesset, the state added.
Previously, on August 5, the court had issued an interim order freezing the government's policy until a final decision is made.
Yacimovich greeted that order as a message to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that he should act more democratically by bringing the issue to the Knesset.
Hundreds of protesters came to support her struggle and the NGOs.
But it was far from clear which way the court will go in its final and fateful ruling on the issue, expected in the near future.Sharon Udasin contributed to this story.
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