A narrow majority in the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee voted on Monday against activating Article 52 – the contentious legal clause that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can implement to move forward with the country’s natural gas outline.
Although the committee’s recommendations are not legally binding, and as economy minister, Netanyahu can choose to invoke the clause regardless, seven committee members voted against recommending its use while six voted in favor. The vote occurred in the 11th and final session in a series of discussions that have been a prerequisite toward implementing the long-disputed natural gas deal.
Although the deal received cabinet approval in August, fully activating it requires the economy minister to invoke a legal clause to circumvent the Antitrust Authority’s objections – Article 52 of the 1988 Restrictive Trade Practices Law.
While the article has never been implemented in Israel’s history, an economy minister can do so by citing national security or foreign policy interests. After former economy minister Arye Deri resigned from his position last month, it became Netanyahu’s duty in that role to consult with the Economic Affairs Committee prior to activating Article 52.
The need to employ Article 52 arose due to the refusal of former antitrust commissioner David Gilo to support the gas outline. Gilo, who resigned in August over the issue, said he felt that the terms of the deal would stifle competition in the country's natural gas sector. His successor has likewise refrained from backing the outline.
“It appears to be that the final decision about advancing the natural gas outline, including the part that requires consultation on Article 52, was determined already before the start of the consultation process,” said Economic Affairs Committee Chairman Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union) on Monday.
“In other words, it appears that the consultation process was not conducted with an open heart and willing soul, but as a procedural formality,” Cabel said. “However, the Economic Affairs Committee has invested many hours in studying the subject and provided its advice with an open heart and a willing soul.”
The seven MKs who voted to recommend Netanyahu not invoke Article 52 included Cabel, Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin (Zionist Union), Yossi Yonah (Zionist Union), Dov Henin (Joint List), Abdel-Hakim Haj-Yahya (Joint List), Esawi Frej (Meretz) and Haim Jelin (Yesh Atid), who voted in place of Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid).
The six MKs who voted in favor were Miki Zohar (Likud), who replaced Nava Boker (Likud); Yoav Kisch (Likud), who replaced David Bitan (Likud); Nurit Koren (Likud); Roy Folkman (Kulanu); Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism); and Yoav Ben-Tzur (Shas), who replaced Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas). The vote broke down entirely along coalition lines.
During the discussions that preceded Monday’s vote, Peri stressed that while he was against invoking Article 52, he felt a vote was unnecessary and said another party member might replace him if a vote occurs.
“I would like to clarify that this does not reflect my position regarding the entire gas outline,” Peri said. “If a vote was held not just on Article 52, I would abstain.”
Haj-Yahya spoke out against using Article 52, explaining that over the course of the discussions he remained unconvinced that activating the clause was the proper move.
“I hope the gas outline will bring equality to the Arab public,” he said. “The outline was already signed, so what we are doing here is a recommendation and is not binding.”
Koren, on the other hand, said she felt “the article is unavoidable, and it’s about time the outline will get underway.”
“Let’s finish this gas saga,” she said. “That Knesset members from all shades of opinion are sitting here shows that we are a democratic country.”
Kisch, who was replacing Bitan, emphasized how “the gas issue has clear ties to energy security.” He presented a letter signed by the six committee members who are also part of the coalition, expressing the importance of invoking Article 52 for both foreign policy and national security reasons.
While Netanyahu did not respond directly to the committee’s recommendations on Monday, the prime minister discussed the importance of implementing the natural gas outline at the Likud faction meeting later that day.
“We are faced with finalizing the natural gas issue,” Netanyahu said. “Israel needs several gas rigs and fields in order to reduce dependence on a single rig that has already been the target of terror attacks. This outline is the only path that promises a reasonable chance to develop additional rigs. If there is no outline, there certainly will not be additional rigs, and we will then face a severe security challenge.”
The prime minister said developing the fields would have enormous economic benefits for Israel, generating hundreds of billions of shekels in revenue. In addition, he said, the increased use of natural gas would reinforce the country’s battle against air pollution.
“I must say that all the regulators, all the professionals except one, have supported and are supporting this outline,” Netanyahu said. “There is a discourse that unfortunately has become more and more oppositional, with a political background, that objects to the outline only because the government has introduced it. This will not deter us – we are considering things as they are. From a national interest, this is a good outline for Israel.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog warned on Monday that if Netanyahu decides to ignore the panel’s recommendations, the Zionist Union would file a petition to the High Court of Justice against the use of Article 52.
“The petition will focus on taking the name of security in vain,” Herzog said. “If the prime minister chooses to ignore and boorishly annul the recommendation of the Economic Affairs Committee, which held in-depth discussions at the leadership of its chairman and with the prominent participation of MK Shelly Yacimovich and other MKs, our faction will be left with no choice but to appeal to the High Court against the crooked use of Article 52.”
Invoking Article 52, Herzog said, would mean “binding the hands of future governments with the distorted promise of regulatory changes for years ahead.”
“Members of the public do not understand who Netanyahu is protecting and the interests of those he is serving when he promotes this unfair and inadequate gas outline, which will not benefit the citizens of Israel and the Israeli economy,” Herzog concluded.