Separation of powers: Can Netanyahu testify before High Court over gas deal?

Zionist Union, Meretz stage last stand against comprehensive deal aimed at settling disagreements between gas developers and the government.

Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Benjamin Netanyahu
There was high drama at the High Court of Justice on Wednesday as the state and five petitioners, including the Zionist Union and Meretz parties, fought over whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can appear to try to personally defend the gas deal.
The deal in question – a comprehensive deal aimed at settling disagreements between gas developers and the government – was officially activated on December 17 after Netanyahu signed a controversial legal clause enabling the framework to move forward.
Commonly known as the “gas outline,” the deal received cabinet approval in August, but faced additional obstacles due to failures to receive the antitrust commissioner’s approval.
Fully realizing the gas deal ultimately required that the economy minister – a role currently being filled by Netanyahu – invoke a legal clause to circumvent the commissioner’s objections – Article 52 of the Restrictive Trade Practices Law (1988).
As part of the process of employing Article 52, Netanyahu was required to conduct consultations with the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee, chaired by MK Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union). While committee members voted against recommending the use of the clause, their conclusions were in no way legally binding.
The state’s shocking request to unprecedentedly bring Netanyahu to the court personally came after the expanded panel of five justices arm-twisted the state into agreeing to a conditional order against it regarding the deal.
Essentially, the order meant the state dropping many of its potential procedural defenses to the deal and forces it to go to a final substantive debate over the policy.
After approximately an hour of consultations, which included top officials in court: Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold, Deputy-Attorney General for Financial Issues Avi Licht, top defense official Amos Gilad, as well as Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit by telephone, the state agreed to the order.
Accusing the government of neglecting the Israel’s natural gas sector and “marketing an illusion” in the industry, the Zionist Union faction on January 11, and later also Meretz and several NGOs, filed High Court petitions against the country’s gas framework.
While the petitioners were represented in court on Wednesday by MKs Shelly Yacimovich and Cabel (both of Zionist Union) and Meretz Party leader Zehava Galon, Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog has also slammed the deal due to the prime minister’s “disregard” of the Economic Affairs Committee recommendations, as well as his decision to sign Article 52, which “bypasses the antitrust commissioner for the first time since the state’s establishment.”
The petitions take a look at a “long series of legal flaws” in the outline, as well as issues of “extreme unreasonableness and disproportionality,” according to the faction statement.
“The petition exposes the poor conduct of the government in neglecting basic issues in the natural gas sector, such as the problem of monopolistic pricing and the lack of energy security – and now, instead of take care of this suitably, tries to market an illusion of an ‘outline’ that not only does not solve these problems, but cements them for generations and even worsens them,” Zionist Union added.
Yacimovich, who has long been a vocal opponent of the gas outline, stressed that she and her colleagues would do everything in their power to abort the deal. Also describing the plans as unreasonable, Yacimovich has emphasized “the public’s right to benefit from everyone’s natural resources, which were expropriated and plundered by a few with the help of the government.”