Clashes as thousands protest natural gas deal

Demonstrators block main Tel Aviv artery while rallying against licensing of conglomerate to exploit gas offshore reserves , several arrests

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)

Thousands of protesters marched against the government’s handling of offshore gas reserves in Tel Aviv Saturday night, blocking roads and chanting slogans, sparking low-level clashes with police.

At least four people were arrested during the protest, according to Hebrew media reports, as crowds marched through central Tel Aviv, blocking the Maariv flyover at one of the city’s main junctions after midnight.

Small fights also broke out between police and protesters, according to Israel Radio.

The demonstration was called to protest against the emerging deal between the government and a US-Israeli energy conglomerate entrusted to develop Israel’s natural gas reserves.

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

Chanting slogans calling Delek energy tycoon Yitzhak Tshuva “piggish” and the government “corrupt,” protesters rallied at the city’s Habima Square on Rothschild Boulevard, before marching to the government complex on Kaplan street, near the Azrieli center — a route often taken by the social protest movement four years ago.

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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