Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Tel Aviv on Saturday night, demonstrating against Thursday’s security cabinet decision to advance a contentious compromise outline among government officials and natural gas companies.
As a result of Thursday’s vote, in which the security cabinet unanimously voted to deem the country’s natural gas development an issue of national security, the compromise outline will now be conveyed to the full cabinet for final approval. Government representatives and the companies have been in disputes since December, when Antitrust Commissioner David Gilo’s announced that he would review whether the market dominance of the Delek Group and Noble Energy constitutes an illegal “restrictive agreement.”
For the security cabinet decision to take place, the government invoked for the first time in the state’s history the Antitrust Law’s Article 52, under which the antitrust commissioner can be prevented from interfering in a “restrictive agreement” due to reasons of foreign policy or state security.
Although gas from the 282 billion cubic meter Tamar reservoir, located about 80 km. off the coast of Haifa, has been flowing into Israel since March 2013, work on the neighboring 621 b.cu.m. Leviathan basin has been unable to proceed as a result of the disagreements between government officials and the companies.
In the latest version of the outline, Delek Group’s subsidiaries Delek Drilling and Avner Oil Exploration will be forced to exit the Tamar reservoir, selling their assets there within six years. Houston-based Noble Energy could remain the basin’s operator, needing to dilute its ownership from the current 36 percent share to 25 percent.
The Delek Group subsidiaries and Noble Energy would be required to sell their holdings in two much smaller offshore reservoirs, Karish and Tanin. Those sales must take place within 14 months, with the possibility of operating them for a further four months under the supervision of a trustee.
In the Leviathan reservoir, the current outline would allow the companies to conduct joint sales of gas to Israeli consumers for the first 10 years of operation, potentially introducing a competitive, separate marketing structure thereafter.
While government officials stand by the terms of the compromise outline, both Saturday night’s demonstrators and members of the Knesset’s opposition are slamming the move as capitulation to corporate demands.
Leading up to Saturday night's protest, the demonstration's organizers said they were demanding greater transparency and a full disclosure of discussions that took place among members of the inter-ministerial team that negotiated with the gas companies. In addition, they called for an open debate in the Knesset on the regulation and supervision of the gas sector.
The activists, led primarily by the student organization Green Course, demanded price controls on natural gas, as well as the immediate establishment of a second intake pipeline to the country's reservoirs. The protestors also demanded the swift connection of factories across the nation to natural gas, as well as the preservation of the resource for Israeli domestic purposes rather than export.
Ahead of the protest, MK Shelly Yachimovich (Zionist Union) wrote on Facebook that "only a civilian struggle will stop the theft of gas." She stressed that this "is not a partisan battle, but a battle for everyone."
Although not at the Tel Aviv rally, but attending a different cultural event in Holon, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid addressed the gas issue on Saturday night as well, stressing that his party would not support the compromise outline without a mechanism for price controls.
"We have to study the emerging outline in a transparent and open matter in the Economic Affairs Committee in the Knesset," Lapid said. "This cannot exist in the dark – it must take place transparently."
The day after the security cabinet decision, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied a report in Friday's Ha'aretz that suggested that his decisions about how to handle offshore natural gas fields were compromised by his relations with US billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
The report revealed a letter Adelson wrote Netanyahu in August 2014 in his capacity as chairman of the US Chamber of Commerce’s US-Israel Business Initiative. The letter appears to urge steps favored by Noble Energy, one of the controlling owners of the Tamar natural gas field.
"I don't work for any tycoon," Netanyahu wrote in a Facebook post on Friday. "I am prime minister of Israel, and I work for you, for the security of Israel and the welfare of all of its citizens."
Netanyahu vowed in the Facebook post to keep his campaign promise to lower the cost of living using Israel's natural resources via the gas deal being negotiated.
"This framework will break up a monopoly and infuse hundreds of millions of shekels for education, welfare and health for all Israeli citizens in the decades ahead," he wrote. "I will not let populist shouting prevent me from improving Israeli citizens' lives."
But Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On did not accept Netanyahu's denial and asked Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein to prevent Netanyahu from making decisions on the gas deal, due to his ties with Adelson.
"The prime minister has a clear interest in advancing Adelson's interests, due to his support for Netanyahu and his ownership of a newspaper that backs him," she wrote to Weinstein.
Gal-On participated in the demonstration in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, during which she warned against Israel becoming "an oligarchy in which an almighty monopoly controls us with the approval of the government."