Economic Affairs Committee session heats up over gas debate

The natural gas outline is the result of some eight months of negotiations.

Israel’s natural gas (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israel’s natural gas
An Economic Affairs Committee session about activating the country’s long-disputed natural gas outline devolved into shouting matches numerous times on Sunday as Knesset members across the political spectrum and social activists blocked each other from completing sentences.
The session, the first in a series of final discussions prerequisite toward implementing the long-disputed deal, became so heated that committee chairman Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union) began throwing unruly participants out of the room.
Although the deal received both required cabinet approval in August and additional Knesset backing in September, fully implementing the outline now requires that the economy minister invoke a legal clause to bypass objections of the Antitrust Authority.
Following former economy minister Arye Deri’s resignation three weeks ago, it became Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s duty as economy minister to consult with the Economic Affairs Committee prior to activating that clause – known as Article 52.
“We must make every effort in order to conduct an orderly, professional and non-militant process – a process that will clarify things impartially,” Cabel said at the beginning of Sunday’s discussion.
“Despite the fact that Israel has never carried out a consultation process on the basis of Article 52, I am confident that we will hold a procedure that will respect democracy and the Knesset of Israel, but above all, that will respect the people of Israel.”
The natural gas outline is the result of some eight months of negotiations that followed former antitrust commissioner David Gilo’s December announcement that he intended to review whether the market dominance of Delek Group and Noble Energy constituted an illegal “restrictive agreement.”
After issuing several iterations of a compromise outline and following a public objections period, the government authorized the terms of the deal in August.
Among the terms of the outline are requirements that Delek Group and Noble Energy sell their two smaller reservoirs Karish and Tanin in 14 months, with Delek completely exiting the Tamar basin in six years and Noble diluting its assets there. The document also establishes some pricing schemes – which opponents deem far too weak – and includes clauses for ensuring stability in the sector. Delek and Noble are able to fully remain in the larger Leviathan reservoir, where development has been frozen due to the ongoing negotiations.
Like the many Knesset opposition politicians and activists who have come out against the deal, Gilo refused to support the outline, saying it would stifle competition in the gas market. He ultimately resigned over the issue on August 31, and the acting antitrust commissioner has likewise not offered support.
To circumvent an antitrust commissioner’s authority, the economy minister can invoke Article 52 of the 1988 Restrictive Trade Practices Law (The Antitrust Law), citing national security interests.
Deri was not willing to invoke Article 52, arguing that the clause had never been implemented in the country’s history.
After he elected to resign on November 1, Netanyahu assumed the role of economy minister. While Netanyahu is required to consult with the Economic Affairs Committee prior to invoking Article 52, the committee’s recommendations are not legally binding.
Earlier this month, National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz said the committee sessions would likely conclude by mid-December, enabling the gas deal to be fully activated by the new year.
At the beginning of Sunday’s Economic Affairs Committee session, Cabel stressed that the prime minister “believes that in light of considerations of foreign policy and national security, we must in this case hurt competition and grant exceptions to the gas partnership.
“Many others think differently and believe that real competition that will bring about an improvement in the welfare of residents is an integral part of Israel’s national security, and that foreign considerations must not prevail in the current case over considerations of competition,” Cabel added.
Likud MKs David Bitan and Miki Zohar – the latter of whom later left the room – both stressed that the ensuing discussions must focus solely on Article 52 itself, and not on the gas outline.
“We have to remember that we are not the ones who are deciding, we are the ones who are advising,” Zohar said.
Zohar emphasized his intention to prevent the committee discussions from turning into “lies against the coalition” and said he intends to ensure that the committee truly looks into the security considerations inherent in the deal.
Although acknowledging that the first item to review may be whether national security interests are sufficiently strong to move the deal along, MK Dov Henin (Joint List) argued that the committee should not solely consider this issue. Henin argued that there has been a lack of democratic process since the beginning of the gas negotiations.
MK Stav Shaffir (Zionist Union), meanwhile, accused the government of “pushing us into a dangerous situation.”
“Many questions have not been answered along the way,” she said. “How is it possible that foreign companies will determine the foreign relations of Israel? What if these companies are acquired in the future by bodies that are not friends of Israel? How will Israel ensure a stable supply in an emergency?” Yossi Dorfman, head of the Gas Campaign Staff group, accused government officials of sitting quietly together with the natural gas companies while failing to publish exact protocols of their meetings and only providing summaries. The Gas Campaign Staff has been leading protests against the natural gas outline in recent weeks in cooperation with the nationwide student movement Green Course.
After Dorfman spoke, Bitan asked the activist to detail his experience in national security. Dorfman simply responded that he has “a right like every citizen of Israel” to express himself on the gas issue.
Backing up Dorfman, activist Or-ly Barlev described how they had come to the Knesset to represent “the wider public” of tens of thousands of people who believe that the gas outline is only in the interest of the companies.
Asked by Cabel about the issue of bringing investors to Israel, Barlev responded, “Investors do not come here because there is a monopoly. The market is closed.”