Cabinet Pipes OK on Gas Deal Into Knesset

YERUSHALAYIM -
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday. (REUTERS/Atef Safadi/Pool)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday. (REUTERS/Atef Safadi/Pool)
Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and Energy and Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz (from R-L) at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday. (REUTERS/Atef Safadi/Pool  Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and Energy and Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz (from R-L) at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday. (REUTERS/Atef Safadi/Pool)
Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and Energy and Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz (from R-L) at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday. (REUTERS/Atef Safadi/Pool
Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and Energy and Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz (from R-L) at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday. (REUTERS/Atef Safadi/Pool)

The Netanyahu government approved on Sunday a deal with the gas companies that would circumvent the opposition of the Antitrust Commissioner, and sent it to the Knesset for voting.

At its weekly meeting, the cabinet invoked the clause in the Restrictive Trade Practices Law which authorizes an override of the Antitrust Commissioner in matters involving national security, but such a move, which is unprecedented, requires Knesset approval as well.

Minister of the Economy Aryeh Deri, who actually wields the authority, declined to do so on Thursday, referring it instead to the cabinet. It is that transfer of authority on which the Knesset must now decide.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the cabinet: “I am determined to advance a realistic solution that will bring gas to the Israeli economy. I will not capitulate to populist proposals that will leave the gas deep underground. We have already seen enough countries that succumbed to these pressures and the gas has remained in the ground. This cannot be allowed to happen here. The outline that has been formulated breaks up the monopoly.

“In the coming decades it will put hundreds of billions of shekels into education, culture, health and many other things for the benefit of all Israeli citizens. After years of discussions, the time has come to decide so that the gas will emerge from the ground and reach the Israeli economy and the citizens of Israel.”

Details of the agreement were yet to be disclosed, but industry sources told Ynet that Noble Energy and Delek Group will be allowed to keep control of the huge Leviathan reservoir. The major obstacle was Antitrust czar David Gilo, who insisted on a more extensive divestiture, and resigned from his post when it became evident that the government was going to compromise with the companies, which had threatened to halt production.

The Knesset is expected to vote in favor. Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman’s backing for the government on this issue should determine the outcome, according to Globes.

But there is still plenty of opposition, “populist,” or otherwise, in the Knesset, and passage will not be smooth.

Netanyahu had to field allegations of improper foreign influence on Friday, when Haaretz suggested that his natural gas policy is compromised by his relations with U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

The report revealed a letter Adelson wrote Netanyahu in August 2014 in his capacity as chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s U.S.-Israel Business Initiative. The letter appears to support steps favored by Noble Energy.

However, Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On was not reassured, and asked Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein to disqualify Netanyahu from taking part in decisions on the gas deal, citing his ties with Adelson, known to be a longtime Netanyahu backer.

“The prime minister has a clear interest in advancing Adelson’s interests, due to his support for Netanyahu and his ownership of a newspaper that backs him,” Gal-On wrote to Weinstein, referring to the newspaper Yisrael Hayom.

At a large demonstration in Tel Aviv on Motzoei Shabbos, Gal-On told the crowd that the country is in danger of becoming “an oligarchy in which a [powerful] monopoly controls us with the approval of the government.”