A Netanyahu split-screen moment - analysis

It is a historic day – a day that will have a huge impact on Israel’s strategic position in the region, on its economy and on its environment.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting, December 2019. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting, December 2019.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ideal universe – or at least in a universe where he is not facing indictments on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust – Tuesday should have been a red-letter day.
Why? Because on Tuesday, natural gas from the Leviathan natural-gas field off the coast of Haifa finally started to flow 10 years after it was discovered.
“Today is a historic day for the State of Israel – the beginning of the flow of the gas from the Leviathan field to the Israeli transmission system,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said, not exaggerating.
It is a historic day – a day that will have a huge impact on Israel’s strategic position in the region, on its economy and on its environment.
This is an event, Steinitz said, “whose macroeconomic and geopolitical importance is difficult to exaggerate. Thanks to the development of the Leviathan field, Israeli citizens will earn tens of billions of dollars over the next 25 years, there will be a cessation of the use of coal that pollutes the air and harms health, the coal stations in Ashkelon and Hadera will be closed, and the peace axis will be strengthened by exporting gas to Egypt, Jordan and, within a few years, also to Europe.”
Leviathan holds out the prospect of Israel not only becoming energy independent and bringing down the price of energy for Israelis, but also that the country – as a net fuel exporter – will become much more valuable to other countries, both in the region and beyond.
And the credit for much of that needs to go to Netanyahu. He pushed the plan for years and with great determination over numerous political, regulatory and judicial hurdles.
These hurdles began in 2010 with the Sheshinski Committee charged with examining the country’s policy on natural resources and determining what share of the revenue will go to the state’s coffers and what share to the developers. There was a huge political battle over this issue.
Then in 2012 another huge hurdle developed when the Antitrust Authority declared that the Noble Energy-Delek partnership to develop the field was a monopoly, and Noble threatened to freeze its development of the field. This led to the formulation in the government of a Natural Gas Framework whereby Noble-Delek would retain majority control in Leviathan as long as they reduced their holdings in a couple of smaller gas fields.
Then, as the formula was being readied for final approval, weekly protests erupted to demonstrate against it, with demonstrators saying the county was being short-shrifted in the deal. Nevertheless, the framework  passed the Knesset by a vote of 59-51.
But that was not the end of the story, as a new problem had to be overcome, when Arye Deri, who was the economy minister at the time, would not use his authority to invoke a clause that would allow the government to approve a monopoly on national security grounds. So he quit instead, Netanyahu took over as economy minister, and despite calls that he was undemocratically usurping way too much authority – invoked this clause.
The deal was – for the most part – done, though up until the very last minute when the gas started to flow on Tuesday it came up against protests on environmental grounds that it would emit carcinogens that would harm residents in communities along the northern coast.
When the deal passed the Knesset in 2015 Netanyahu said, “This is great day for the State of Israel.”
Then later he added, “When I want to achieve something, I achieve it.”
But now, on the last day of the current decade as the gas is actually now flowing, rather than being able to pop open a bottle of champagne and bask in words of congratulation, Netanyahu was preoccupied with what was happening not off the coast of Haifa but rather in the Supreme Court building just a few feet away from his office.
Would the three judges of the court, sitting as the High Court of Justice, rule on a petition brought asking them to rule that Netanyahu, facing indictment for bribery, breach of trust and fraud, cannot be asked to form the next government.
While Netanyahu’s lawyers had hoped the judges would summarily send the petitioners on their way, saying this was a question outside of their competence and one that needed to be decided by the public at the ballot box, the judges announced – even though they made clear that they would rather stay out of the mix – that they would decide on the issue at a later point.
Which means that no, Netanyahu does not always get everything that he sets out to achieve.
On Tuesday, the whole Netanyahu saga – some might call it the Netanyahu tragedy – came into clear focus in a split-screen moment: On the one hand, the gas flowing, an example of Netanyahu’s steps that will have a monumental impact on Israel for generations; on the other, the court holding his fate in its hands as his legal woes continue to hover heavily over everything he does.