Should Economy Minister Arye Deri choose to temporarily resign from his position in order to advance the government’s natural gas program, National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that he would respect his colleague’s decision.
In case of a resignation, Deri’s authority as economy minister would automatically be transferred to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I value that Prime Minister Netanyahu will follow his cabinet decision and will give the necessary signature,” Steinitz said during an exclusive interview at his office in the capital, referring to a bureaucratic step that would be necessary for the deal to go forward.
In July, the cabinet approved the outline of a long-disputed agreement between government bodies and the most prominent gas companies that would allow natural gas to be extracted from major offshore fields.
The vote was 17-1, with Deri being among the ministers voting in favor. In early September, the Knesset approved the deal by a vote of 59-51.
However, former antitrust commissioner David Gilo – who resigned over the issue – refused to support the outline, saying it would stifle competition in the gas market.
To override this, the economy minister would need to invoke Article 52 of the 1988 Restrictive Trade Practices Law (The Antitrust Law), citing national security interests.
Deri, however, noted that an Israeli economy minister had never invoked Article 52, and asked for his authority to be transferred to the entire cabinet, something that would require Knesset approval. The coalition was unable to obtain the necessary Knesset majority for this.
On Saturday night, Deri said on Channel 2’s “Meet the Press” that he would be willing to temporarily leave his post as economy minister while maintaining his Negev and Galilee portfolio, should no other solution for authorizing the outline be found.
In his interview with the Post on Monday, Steinitz indicated his support for such a move.
“As Arye Deri himself said, it’s impossible that one minister will sabotage the government decision and the parliament decision,” the national infrastructure, energy and water minister said.
“This is not the way for proper procedures and administration. Therefore, as [Deri] suggested, he is probably going to resign in the next few days.”
Although Steinitz acknowledged that a resignation would not be ideal, he stressed that it would be a personal decision for Deri to make.
“I personally would have preferred that the minister of economy sign it [Article 52] two months ago, without resigning and without delay,” he said.
“But I respect his decision if he decides to resolve it in another way. That is his decision and I respect it,” the minister added.
Discussing how “time is of the essence,” Steinitz stressed that every month of delay in implementing the gas outline – and delaying the development of the large Leviathan and smaller Karish and Tanin reservoirs – was detrimental to both the country’s economy and its energy security.
“We are also losing time to maybe explore and discover additional gas fields in the Mediterranean,” he said.
Government officials are hoping to attract new players to the Israeli gas market for both this purpose and to introduce further competition in the sector.
Among the terms of the gas outline are requirements that Noble Energy and the Delek Group sell the Karish and Tanin basins, which have yet to be developed, as well as a large chunk of the Tamar reservoir, which has been online since March 2013.
On Sunday evening, media reports indicated that executives from the Italian energy giant Eni would be visiting Israel this week to meet with various officials. In September, Eni announced that it had identified the Mediterranean’s largest known gas field off the Egyptian coast, the 849-billion-cubic-meter) Zohr field. If the estimates prove correct, the field would be significantly larger than the approximately 621 b.cu.m. Leviathan, Israel’s biggest.
Regarding the visit by Eni executives, Steinitz suggested that the company’s presence might be “further testimony that international energy companies are interested in Israel” as part of their overall interest in the eastern Mediterranean basin.
“It’s quite clear that there might be very close cooperation between Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, Jordan and, maybe also in the future, Greece and Turkey,” he said. “If you want to be part of it, you have to be involved also somehow in Israel.”
He emphasized, however, that Eni was by no means the only company interested in the Israeli gas sector.
He pointed to a series of meetings he conducted in Washington and Houston last week.
“For the first time, at some of the meetings there were representatives of some of the energy giants of the world,” Steinitz said.
“Everybody understands that once the framework is in place and once we reopen the sea for other exploration, the potential is significant.”
Steinitz will speak at The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference in Jerusalem on November 18. A full interview with the minister, on energy and political matters, will appear in a magazine being published for the conference.Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.