Hundreds in Tel Aviv protest emerging natural gas deal
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Hundreds in Tel Aviv protest emerging natural gas deal

Environment minister calls for discussion on agreement to allow offshore development by US-Israeli conglomerate

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Israelis protest against Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, and the US-Israeli conglomerate Noble-Delek over a plan to develop Israel's natural gas reserves, in Tel Aviv, on May 30, 2015. (Flash90)
Israelis protest against Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, and the US-Israeli conglomerate Noble-Delek over a plan to develop Israel's natural gas reserves, in Tel Aviv, on May 30, 2015. (Flash90)

Hundreds of people were protesting in Tel Aviv against the emerging deal between the government and a US-Israeli energy conglomerate entrusted to develop Israel’s natural gas reserves.

Protesters were marching from Rothschild Boulevard to the government complex on Kaplan street, near the Azrieli center — a route often taken by the social protest movement four years ago.

Opponents of the gas deal say it amounts to “robbery” of Israel’s natural resources and are urging government transparency on the agreement.

Minister of Environmental Protection Avi Gabai (Kulanu) sent a letter Saturday evening to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asking for an additional discussion on the issue and criticizing his handling of the affair.

Gabai demanded more details on the deal and emphasized that a comprehensive discussion including on the pros and cons and any alternatives to the deal was urgently needed. He also called to address the criticisms leveled against the agreement by various opposition lawmakers and the former anti-trust commissioner.

On Thursday, ending months of legal obstacles, a government committee approved a plan to allow America’s Noble Energy and Israel’s Delek Group access to Israel’s Tamar and Leviathan offshore reserves, despite being branded a de facto monopoly by the anti-trust commissioner last year. Noble-Delek also own two smaller reserves discovered recently.

The firms have been selling gas to the Israeli market from the Tamar field, which went online in 2013, and have agreed to sell to neighboring countries as well. The Leviathan field, the largest gas field in the Mediterranean, has not yet been developed

Earlier Saturday, Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid said that his party would not endorse the emerging deal.

“Yesh Atid will not support a plan that does not contain a monitoring mechanism for gas prices,” Lapid said at a cultural gathering in Holon Saturday. “It cannot be done in the shadows, it must be transparent,” he said.

Lapid’s remarks came a day after Netanyahu assured critics that the decision was not an indication that his government caved to a Noble-Delek monopoly.

“We are promoting a realistic solution that will bring natural gas to the Israeli market and not a populist solution that will leave the gas in the depths of the earth,” Netanyahu said.

“This dismantles the monopoly and will bring in the coming decades hundreds of millions of shekels for education, welfare, health and for every Israeli citizen,” he said.

However, Lapid, along with a number of other opposition lawmakers and former anti-trust commissioner David Gilo, have slammed the Noble-Delek partnership as a cartel and have pushed for increased competition in Israel’s offshore gas market.

Gilo said the partnership wouldn’t really provide any real competition and resigned in protest last month.

Under Thursday’s deal which was approved by the security cabinet, Delek must sell its entire share of Tamar, and Noble Energy must sell most of its holdings within six years. Delek must sell its holdings in two smaller gas fields within 14 months.

The forced sales are aimed at opening the industry to competitors. The deal also sets a price ceiling for future sales to Israeli companies and commits the gas firms to complete the development of the Leviathan gas field by 2019.

But critics say the deal might in fact strengthen the gas monopoly, because the companies will maintain a de facto monopoly over the Tamar field for the next six years before entering a similar partnership to develop the Leviathan field.

The gas deal will soon be presented for public objections and must be approved by the government before it is enacted.

AP contributed to this report.

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