Meretz petitions High Court to block gas deal

Meretz petitions High Court to block gas deal

Opposition party cries foul over Netanyahu’s use of Clause 52 to bypass antitrust commission and push through agreement

An aerial view of an Israeli offshore gas rig (Albatross Aerial photography/Noble Energy/Flash90/File)
An aerial view of an Israeli offshore gas rig (Albatross Aerial photography/Noble Energy/Flash90/File)

The opposition Meretz party on Thursday filed a petition with the High Court against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after he pushed through a controversial deal that allows a two-company partnership to develop a massive gas field off Israel’s coast.

Netanyahu exercised Clause 52 of the Restrictive Trade Practices (antitrust) Law earlier in the day to bypass the country’s antitrust commission and signed the deal with the Noble Energy-Delek Group consortium, which can now begin to extract gas from the Leviathan gas field.

A post on Meretz’s Facebook page argued that Netanyahu, who is also acting economy minister, had been acting on “his strong desire to pass the gas scheme no matter what.”

“One can argue about the deal itself, the environmental and economic implications and the protections it guarantees or does not guarantee the public in the face of the huge monopoly of [Delek Group owner Yitzhak] Tshuva and Noble Energy,” the petitioners wrote. “But one cannot argue about the bizarre and despicable behavior, and the anti-democratic and doubtfully legal actions of the prime minister, who promoted this deal as if he were possessed.”

Meretz is seeking an injunction to prevent the implementation of the gas agreement until the court has ruled on the petition.

Netanyahu was able to sign the deal after invoking the never-before-used Clause 52 to override an antitrust ruling against the deal by declaring it an issue of national security.

The move comes after a year of political cartwheels for Netanyahu in an effort to overcome Knesset and public opposition to the deal, which critics claim will create a de-facto monopoly in the gas market and lead to higher prices for Israeli consumers.

During a ceremony at the Ne’ot Hovav industrial zone near Beersheba Thursday, Netanyahu called the gas “a gift from God” and said the deal would pave the way to energy independence.

“Unfortunately, this issue has become a political and populist discussion,” he said. “This plan is vital to our security, because we don’t want to be left with one power plant that’s under fire; we need multiple gas fields.”

The Leviathan gas field is thought to contain some 22 trillion cubic feet of gas, and is expected to transform the country into a regional energy powerhouse.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said Netanyahu’s use of Clause 52 was “a cynical ploy that takes advantage of our security situation.”

In a post on her Facebook page, his colleague in the Zionist Union MK Shelly Yachimovich also criticized Netanyahu for using the clause, which she said is reserved for a time when “the state is in mortal danger, and only one supplier can provide what will save our lives, at which time no one cares if it is a monopoly.”

Yachimovich said the clause has instead become “a personal letter of submission from the prime minister to Noble and Tshuva in which he is awarding them as a gift a permanent monopoly over the natural resources of Israel, at any inflated price that they feel like charging us.”

“Remember the ridiculous and pompous ceremony today,” she warned, “remember that the struggle not only is not over, it is just beginning.”

Zionist Camp parliament member Shelly Yachimovich attends in the Knesset, June 08, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASh90)
Zionist Camp parliament member Shelly Yachimovich attends in the Knesset, June 08, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASh90)

Netanyahu first sought to invoke Clause 52, an option reserved for the economy minister, after then-antitrust commissioner David Gilo ruled last year that the Delek-Noble conglomerate that is developing Leviathan may constitute a monopoly, sparking a vociferous national debate on the terms given to the energy companies.

Gilo resigned in May over Netanyahu’s decision to push the current deal through.

Aryeh Deri, who was economy minister at the time, not wanting to pay a political price for the gas deal but also not wanting to stand in its way, resigned his post last month, allowing Netanyahu to take over the Economy Ministry and sign the deal himself.

Netanyahu previously failed over several attempts to pass a Knesset vote extending Deri’s personal authority to invoke Clause 52 to the broader cabinet.

Under the terms of the outline, the Delek Group will sell its holdings in the Tamar gas field, as well as two smaller, as-yet undeveloped fields about 120 kilometers off the Haifa coast called Karish and Tanin, within six years, and Noble Energy will gradually reduce its holdings in Tamar to no more than 25 percent within the same time frame. During those six years, prices for natural gas will be regulated.

read more: