Excuse me for mentioning it, but the discovery of natural gas fields off
Israel’s coast has been accompanied by a bad smell.
This week, the gas
situation turned into a particularly hot problem. And frankly, it
The government – in what environmentalists, social protesters and
political opponents, among others, described as a “snatch” – agreed to export 40
percent of the natural gas and keep 60% for domestic use.
was taken amid dissent from both the industrialists involved in the gas
discovery (who had lobbied hard for a greater percentage for export at premium
rates) and those who said the gas is a natural national asset and needs to
benefit first and foremost the home market.
The gas giants threatened to
turn off the faucet and leave the gas untapped under the sea. The
environmentalists warned they would turn up the heat.
A picture of a
banner at a demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s Office caught my eye in
particular with its slogan: “GAS or GEZI!” But when the meaning of the motto
sank in I became less enthusiastic about the copywriting. However inflamed
passions are, to threaten to spark Turkish-style rioting strikes me as a form of
violence in its own way.
The gas is being exploited, in the most negative
sense of the word, by an extraordinarily broad range of interested people and
Its discovery touches on a number of burning socioeconomic
issues, among them the ever-growing disparity between the “tycoons” and what is
still called the middle class more out of habit than anything else.
children and grandchildren should benefit from the find, those of the
entrepreneurs willing to take the risk and invest in the offshore explorations
or the ordinary citizens of the country? There is even, to a certain extent, a
question of who paid for it, given the number of big businessmen who have been
discovered to have gambled (and lost) with money that ultimately came from our
saving accounts and pension funds.
Free-market principles have been shown
to come with a high price tag, and you don’t have to be a member of the radical
Left to realize who has been paying the price in most cases.
Part of the
suspicion surrounding the deal stems from the lack of transparency. Just as the
smell has to be added to the natural gas to alert to leaks and serve as a
warning, so too have the potential dangers of the government’s plans remained
hidden. Protocols of the Zemach Committee – an interministerial panel led by
Energy and Water Ministry director-general Shaul Zemach – were not available to
public scrutiny (i.e. possible criticism) for several months.
of Israel has received a gift from nature – gas in vast quantities,” said Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, following the cabinet meeting. “Thanks to the
decision we made today, every Israeli citizen will enjoy this gift. We will
lower the cost of living in the electricity sector via the gas that will flow
into the Israeli economy, and we will invest in the public welfare thanks to the
profits that will go into the state coffers from gas exports.”
his own thinly veiled warning, he added: “Any delay in implementing this
decision will endanger the state’s ability to realize the benefits of our gas
resources. Gas must not stay in the ground under layers of bureaucracy and
The gas is a gift. Yet it reminds me of the good fortune of a
What others believe to be a dream come true can turn into
a living nightmare for the person suddenly subjected to intense pressure from
family, friends and strangers.
There is a temptation to throw caution to
the winds and large sums of money around; or, conversely, to turn into a
spendthrift, unable to enjoy the freedom that comes with financial
“I think that the ability to withstand the populist wave,
against people who do not understand how to run an economy, who can easily
destroy economies, this ability is within this government,” said Netanyahu. “We
are united and we have considerable strength and determination to enact this
But the gas has also united an unusual band of political
Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich spearheaded the campaign to
submit a petition to the High Court of Justice against the government’s decision
the day after Netanyahu spoke so firmly. “If populism is helping 99% of the
public and not giving NIS 350 billion gifts to tycoons, continue being
populists,” she told the Labor faction meeting.
Her petition was joined
by Economic Affairs Committee chairman MK Avishay Braverman (Labor), MK Moshe
Gafni (United Torah Judaism) and former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud
Beytenu) as well as a number of NGOs dealing with governance and social
Current Environment Minister Amir Peretz (Hatnua) opposed the
government’s decision as did the former minister Gilad Erdan, one of Netanyahu’s
closest allies in the past.
The fight now is focusing on who has the
right to take a decision on such a strategic subject with so many long-term
ramifications: the government or the Knesset.
All agree that the effects
of the country’s gas policy will be felt in a large number of spheres; beyond
the socioeconomic implications, there could be an impact on Israel’s diplomatic
ties and also its security.
Becoming an exporter of gas will likely
affect Israel’s standing in the Mediterranean basin and beyond, while being
independent of the need to import gas via the volatile Egyptian pipeline is
another obvious benefit.
The peculiar nature of gas has another catch –
no one is quite sure what quantities are involved, hence the social protesters
and government both tend to talk in terms of percentages rather than absolute
Part of the problem is the obvious distrust of both
The government fears the populist element in the opposition. The
public might not be taking to the streets this year – the demonstration outside
the Knesset where the “Gas or Gezi” banner was raised was attended by about 15
people, according to Jerusalem Post photographer Marc Israel Sellem – yet to
talk about the silent majority would be incorrect: Much of the “99%” are active
on the social media and are aware – and concerned – about what the “1%” is
doing, at whose expense, and what cost. The Hebrew words “hon, shilton,”
referring to the close relationship between capital and government, have become
a common catchphrase, usually voiced with the same negative tone as the words
“tycoon” and “politikai” (politician).
It was no surprise that the
Movement for Quality Government and Adam Teva V’Din (Israel Union for
Environmental Defense) were among those that blasted the decision being taken
around the cabinet table, behind closed doors, rather than in the Knesset, where
a larger number of representatives, including from the opposition, could
participate in open discussions.
Natural assets belong to the country,
not to whichever government happens to be in power when they are uncovered or
their potential can be realized.
The government is understandably in a
hurry to make the most of the gas because of the geo-political opportunities and
the immediate economic benefits, but such decisions cannot be taken in a rush,
swept up with the powerful flow of the gas.
Without knowing how much gas
the country itself will need in the coming years, deciding how much to export is
Going against the flow, I’d still prefer that more investment
were made in harnessing a truly infinite and natural asset with which Israel is
blessed – solar energy. Gas is considered a good source of clean energy;
nonetheless even the most unsophisticated consumer knows that handling it
requires caution.The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem