Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended his controversial gas deal to the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee Tuesday, saying signing the agreement and developing the resource was essential for ensuring the country’s security and regional stability.
Netanyahu appeared before the committee to be questioned on the outline of the deal, which has been criticized by some as giving away too much of the country’s resources to business interests.
The prime minister said going ahead with the agreement with a US-Israeli consortium to develop the massive Leviathan gas field was “essential for the proper functioning of the country.”
“We need to ensure our energy security,” Netanyahu said, adding that for Israel to be dependent on a single offshore gas field would be “liable to significantly harm our national security.”
“All the interest in Israel dissipates if we don’t” develop the rigs, he said. “The security considerations force us to develop more fields and more rigs. It strengthens the ties between the moderates in the region, and therefore this deal is essential for the future of Israel.”
He added that the deal was “essential” for Israel’s foreign standing, and would help stabilize the region, and said Jerusalem was holding high level talks with Turkey and others over the issue.
“A state that exports critical resources to other countries has much more power,” he said. “The stronger you are, the more they [other countries] seek you out.”
He said the deal would make “Israel much more immune to international pressure,” and help fight BDS by making it harder to boycott the Israeli economy.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz were also set to testify before the panel.
During his testimony, Netanyahu was heckled by opposition lawmakers, who were quieted by committee head Eitan Cabel, a Zionist Union MK who has been critical of the deal.
Netanyahu, who acts as economy minister, is required by law to attend the Economic Affairs Committee meeting in order to follow through on his intention of bypassing the government Antitrust Authority in order to sign the deal.
Although he is required to present his case to the Economic Affairs Committee, the committee has no power to stand in Netanyahu’s way in pushing ahead with the deal, which he is expected to sign.
Kahlon had earlier disqualified himself from being involved in the negotiations surrounding the deal, citing a conflict of interest due to his personal acquaintance with a partner to the gas fields.
Cabel, whose party leads the parliamentary opposition, prepared for the meeting by asking the public on Monday via his Facebook page for suggestions of questions he should ask Netanyahu during the committee gathering.
Under the terms of the proposed deal, which was approved by the Knesset in September, the government plans to give an international consortium led by the Delek and Noble Energy companies the rights to Leviathan, the largest gas reserve yet found in Israeli territorial waters.
The Leviathan find, thought to contain 18.9 trillion cubic feet (535 billion cubic meters) of gas, is considered a gold mine for the state, turning it into a potential major natural gas supplier and providing hundreds of billions of shekels for state coffers, according to Netanyahu.
Critics of the deal, including former anti-trust commissioner David Gilo who resigned in May over the matter, have expressed concern that it creates a de facto monopoly that would lead to high gas prices for Israelis. They have accused the government of capitulating to gas companies’ demands.
However, politicians have balked at green-lighting the controversial measure.
The economy minister has the power to sign off on bypassing the Antitrust Authority but former economy minister Aryeh Deri, who had long refused to exercise the right, eventually resigned from his post in November, which he said was in order to not stand in the way of the deal.
The agreement has drawn near-weekly protests in Tel Aviv and elsewhere by activists who say the deal is too favorable to the Noble-Delek partnership, at the state’s expense.
On Saturday night, despite the unusually cold weather, thousands of people took part in a protest against the deal in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, the scene of similar demonstrations over the past weeks.
Hundreds more protesters attended demonstrations in Nahariya, Arad, Modiin, and Ashdod, the Walla news site reported.
Several dozen protesters also gathered in front of Netanyahu’s private home in the coastal city of Caesarea to voice their opposition to the agreement.