Knesset economic panel votes symbolically against gas deal

7-6 vote on single clause is a technicality that will not stop Netanyahu from pushing forward controversial accord

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defends the controversial gas deal in the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee on December 8, 2015 (Knesset spokesman)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defends the controversial gas deal in the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee on December 8, 2015 (Knesset spokesman)

The Knesset’s Economic Affairs Committee on Monday made a symbolic gesture of opposition to a controversial gas agreement that hands control of Israel’s substantial newly-discovered gas fields to two corporations.

The panel voted to reject Clause 52 of the Restrictive Trade Practices (antitrust) Law, which allows the economy minister to bypass the Antitrust Authority if security or foreign policy considerations justify it.

“The Minister may, following consultation with the Knesset’s Economic Affairs Committee, exempt a restrictive trade practice from all or some of the provisions of this Law, if he believes that such action is necessary for reasons of foreign policy or national security,” states the clause.

In this instance, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also serving as economy minister, invoked the clause on security grounds, saying that natural gas extraction lightens the load on Israel’s existing power plants, which were targeted by missiles during last summer’s war with Hamas. He also claimed that the gas revenues will offset the costs of a possible boycott of Israeli goods.

But the vote, which pitted seven opposition parliamentarians (including committee chairman Zionist Union MK Eitan Cabel) against six coalition members, will not stop Netanyahu from moving ahead with the deal.

Netanyahu has spent the past year performing political cartwheels to override Knesset and public opposition and push the agreement forwards.

In May, Antitrust Authority Commissioner David Gilo resigned, claiming that the partnership between Noble Energy and Delek Group, led by billionaire Yitzhak Tshuva, constituted monopoly control of a key natural resource that would lead to high prices for Israeli consumers.

Last month, Shas leader Aryeh Deri resigned as economy minister rather than approve the clause, paving the way for Netanyahu to take over the portfolio.

Netanyahu informed Cabel that he wanted to consult with the Economic Affairs Committee before invoking the controversial clause for the first time in the country’s history. Last week, he tried to persuade committee members that geopolitical considerations demanded implementation of the deal. “The natural gas gives Israel a much stronger basis for withstanding international pressure,” he said. “If we don’t accept the outline, we’ll be left without competition, without gas fields, without energy security and without the ability to export.”

Thousands of people have taken to the streets in recent weeks to campaign against the outline agreement, in the biggest demonstrations since the 2011 social justice protests. Protesters have accused the government of “stealing” the largest natural resource ever found in the country and handing it over to a monopoly of businessmen.

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