Coalition struggles to get votes to move gas deal forward

Kulanu joins opposition's calls for plan to be released to public and debated in Knesset.

Israel's natural gas (photo credit: MINISTRY OF NATIONAL INFRASTRUCTURES)
Israel's natural gas
A vote on what was considered a referendum on the coalition’s gas deal was postponed Monday to a still-undetermined date after it failed to enlist enough support in the Knesset.
The vote, which was scheduled to take place on Monday, would consider whether to transfer the authority to invoke a legal clause that could deem natural gas a matter of national security from Economy Minister Arye Deri to the full cabinet.
Such a move would pave the way for the government to approve a compromise outline that officials and natural gas companies have been formulating for the past six months to settle disputes that have largely frozen the sector.
Because the postponed vote was likely to be the only vote related to gas that will be brought to the Knesset’s plenum, the opposition came out in full force, using the 59-61 power dynamic to its advantage.
“We need to act responsibly today,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a Likud faction meeting in the afternoon, before the vote was postponed. “The gas deal is responsible and good, breaks the monopoly and will lead to hundreds of millions of shekels flowing into the state’s coffers for education, welfare, health and other needs.
“This is the time to show leadership and responsibility. We have to promote and adopt the outline,” he said.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked made an impassioned plea for MKs not to “chicken out” in a speech in the plenum, turning specifically to Yesh Atid, which she said supports a free-market economy.
“You will do the right thing if you vote here for what is good for the country today,” she said.
“If the outline we propose today is right from a geopolitical perspective, vote for it. Egypt and Argentina are crying to this day because their gas is still under the sea and regulation complicated things. Make a real, ideological judgment. My friends in the coalition and opposition, don’t chicken out! Do what is right for the country, even if it is not popular.”
The disputes in the country’s natural- gas sector are the result of Israel Antitrust Authority commissioner David Gilo’s December announcement that he would review whether the market dominance of the Delek Group and Noble Energy constitutes an illegal “restrictive agreement.”
While government officials and the natural-gas companies have formulated several versions of a compromise outline to settle the issue in the past six months, Gilo has made it clear he would not support the most recent versions and went so far as to announce his forthcoming August resignation on May 25.
In order to bypass the antitrust commissioner’s authority, Netanyahu and other proponents of the compromise deal promoted the invocation of Article 52 of the 1988 Restrictive Trade Practices Law (the Antitrust Law), through which an antitrust commissioner can be prevented from interfering in a “restrictive agreement” for reasons of foreign policy or national security.
Although Article 52 enables an economy minister to directly exercise his authority to invoke the clause, Deri transferred his powers on the issue to the hands of the government in Thursday’s security cabinet meeting.
The day before, he had warned Netanyahu that he would not act as a “rubber stamp” on the approval of what has become a divisive issue among politicians and industry stakeholders.
With one vote against and three abstentions, the government approved the transfer of authorities from Deri to the full cabinet on Sunday.
However, because the economy minister waived his authority on the issue, Article 31a. and b. of the country’s Basic Law: The Government mandates that the issue receive Knesset approval as well.
The Knesset vote to transfer Deri’s authority to the general cabinet that was supposed to take place Monday evening was at first pushed to the end of day’s agenda when too many coalition MKs refused to participate, thus leaving the opposition with a majority, and was postponed indefinitely after 11 p.m.
After abstaining from the full cabinet vote on Sunday, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, Construction Minister Yoav Galant and Welfare Minister Haim Katz all said they would recuse themselves from the Knesset vote because of conflicts of interest.
In May, Kahlon recused himself from any involvement in the gas sector due to the conflict of interest posed by his friendship with Koby Maimon, chairman off Isramco, which has a 28.75 percent stake in the Tamar gas field. Galant and Katz both hold stock that likely would become more valuable if the gas deal is approved, and Galant also previously served as chairman of businessman Beny Steinmetz’s gas-drilling firm.
The ministers, who were under immense pressure from within the coalition to vote, said they would not do so, despite the fact that Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon said on Sunday lawmakers with a conflict of interest are allowed to do so, and just need to declare the conflict to the plenum and the Knesset Ethics Committee.
Meanwhile, MK Michael Oren (Kulanu) was on a book tour in the US.
In the opposition, the only MK who was not expected to attend the vote was Basel Ghattas of the Joint List, who was aboard one of the ships headed to Gaza that the IDF stopped early Monday morning, though the vote’s postponement to later Monday night meant he was more likely to arrive on time. However, shortly before the vote was canceled, his fellow Balad MKs Haneen Zoabi and Jamal Zahalka left the Knesset to be with him upon his leaving the Ashdod Port, where the flotilla terminated.
As of Sunday evening, the coalition thought it would rely on Yisrael Beytenu’s six votes to cover its missing five, because party chairman Avigdor Liberman repeatedly said he supported the gas deal.
However, on Monday afternoon, Liberman said that although he thinks the gas deal is a good one, he cannot support the government in the procedural vote.
“What the government is doing is running away from responsibility,” he said. “Everyone in the coalition is claiming he has a conflict of interest. They don’t want to vote for political reasons, and we won’t play that game."
“We aren’t the coalition’s babysitter. If Shas and Kulanu feel uncomfortable [with the deal] because of their voters, they should deal with it,” he added, calling for Netanyahu to take control of his government and force his ministers to vote for its policies.
Liberman accused the gas deal’s opponents, specifically MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor), Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On and financial newspaper TheMarker, of “combining populism and Bolshevism.”
In addition, Liberman posited that those who are against the gas deal are “always against Israel and always support the Palestinians”; are associated with left-wing NGOs; and receive funding from donors who also contribute to Hamas. He said his party plans to propose a parliamentary commission inquiry into left-wing NGOs’ funding.
Liberman also joined lawmakers in the coalition and opposition in calling on the government to release the details of the gas deal to the public.
Hours before the vote was supposed to take place, Kulanu set three conditions for its support for the deal – even though its ministers, Kahlon and Galant, would not vote on gas-related matters and the compromise outline itself would not reach the Knesset – first of which is transparency.
The party cal ed for the full deal and protocols of the security cabinet decision to be released, and for there to be a discussion of it in the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee.
The second condition is that the target gas-purchasing price be lowered and that there be price controls, while the third calls for there to be a second pipeline from Leviathan.
Similarly, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid said, “We will vote against moving authority to the government, because it cannot be that the most important economic discussion of the last 20 years takes place in the dark, without giving the Knesset a chance to review the details.
“If there will be an option to regulate prices, we will support the gas outline. If there will not be an option of regulation, we will oppose the outline with all our might,” Lapid added at the opening of a Yesh Atid faction meeting.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) wondered what Netanyahu was afraid of that made him decide to keep the deal confidential.
“If the secret deal is so good, the public will support it,” Herzog said. “Even if Netanyahu doesn’t like it, Israel is still a democracy.”
Addressing coalition MKs, whom he called “obedient parrots,” Herzog asked: “How can you vote without knowing what you’re voting for? Would you do that if we were going to war? Would you do that with a peace treaty?” Herzog pointed out that all opposition parties called for the deal to be transparent.
“Anything else would show contempt for the Knesset’s honor and would be a bad joke at the public’s expense,” he concluded.
In a later briefing with reporters, Herzog vowed to use all tools at his disposal to bring down the government – including petitioning the High Court if MKs with conflicts of interest vote.
“Even if this is just the first crack in the wall, it will be a major one,” he said. “Don’t underestimate me...I plan to lead this battle and if there is an opportunity to bring down the government, I will make it happen with full force.”
While the government has yet to publish the final version of the compromise outline, the Prime Minister’s Office said on Sunday the document will be submitted for public comment in the coming days and subsequently will be discussed by the cabinet.
Among the terms of the outline is a requirement that the Delek Group’s subsidiaries Delek Drilling and Avner Oil Exploration exit the Tamar reservoir, selling their assets there within six years. Houston-based Noble Energy could remain the basin’s operator, but would need to dilute its ownership from the current 36% to 25%.
Also, the Delek Group subsidiaries and Noble Energy would be required to sell their holdings in two much smaller offshore reservoirs, Karish and Tanin. Those sales must take place within 14 months, with the possibility of operating them for a further four months under the supervision of a trustee.
In the Leviathan reservoir, the current outline would allow the companies to conduct joint sales of gas to Israeli consumers for the first 10 years of operation, potentially introducing a competitive, separate marketing structure thereafter.