(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Economy Minister Arye Deri flatly rejected calls for him to temporarily step down from his position so that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can take his portfolio and sign off on the government’s long-delayed natural gas structure deal.
Members of the Knesset Finance Committee asked Deri, who spoke to the panel on Tuesday, about rumors that Netanyahu asked him to declare himself incapacitated for a short time.
“Do you know in what cases ministers are declared incapacitated?” Deri asked, referring to serious illnesses, and received the response “God forbid” from several MKs.
Though Deri voted in favor of the gas plan in the cabinet and Knesset, he is holding up the government’s natural gas outline from moving forward.
As economy minister, he has the authority to sign Article 52 of the 1988 Restrict Trade Practices Law (the Antitrust Law), circumventing the objections of an antitrust commissioner in matters of foreign relations or national security.
However, Deri told MKs that “the rumors that I am avoiding making a decision on the topic of gas are not true. I have been dealing with the issue since I entered this job.”
Former antitrust commissioner David Gilo, whose resignation took effect last week, decided last December that he would not approve the government’s deal with gas field developers Noble Energy and Delek Group, threatening to declare it a “restrictive agreement.”
Though Deri had previously said he would sign Article 52 if the Knesset approved the gas deal, as it did on Monday, two weeks ago he changed his mind and said he would wait for the new antitrust commissioner to approve it.
Antitrust Authority Legal Adviser Uri Schwartz, whom Deri appointed to fill Gilo’s position temporarily while he seeks a permanent replacement, has said in closed discussions that he does not intend to advance the gas outline during the transition period.
During the Finance Committee meeting, Deri pointed out that Schwartz could approve the deal, but refuses to address the gas issue.
For a new antitrust commissioner to approve the outline, he or she would have to review the document thoroughly, conduct public hearings that could last for months and then submit his or her consent decree to the Antitrust Tribunal for a final decision.
If Deri does not sign Article 52, it could take more than a year for the gas structure to be approved.
Meanwhile, National Infrastructure, Water and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz gave a series of interviews criticizing Deri for changing his mind about signing Article 52.
“It cannot be that one minister will impede another,” Steinitz told Channel 1 on Monday night. “Without a signature, we don’t have gas.
He has to sign. If he doesn’t in the coming days, we’ll have to weigh drastic measures.”
On Tuesday morning, in an interview with Shas-affiliated radio station Kol Barama, Steinitz said that for the gas plan to go into effect, “all we need is one thing, a signature from Deri.”
Referring to the upcoming High Holy Days, Steinitz added: “Deri made a commitment [to sign Article 52] on three occasions..., I hope that before Yom Kippur, if he wants to be inscribed in the Book of Good Life, he will sign the gas deal.”