Netanyahu faces uphill battle to secure majority in gas deal vote
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Netanyahu faces uphill battle to secure majority in gas deal vote

Ahead of Knesset session on controversial accord and with 3 ministers set to abstain, PM seeks to persuade Arab MKs to skip vote

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on September 6, 2015. (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on September 6, 2015. (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)

The Knesset on Monday was set to vote on a controversial reform of Israel’s natural gas sector, but by Sunday night Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not appear to have clinched a parliamentary majority to approve the plan.

As part of the special session called during the summer recess, the Knesset was slated to vote on whether to transfer the monopoly-approving authority of Economy Minister Aryeh Deri — who has refused to exercise his ministerial power to fast-track the new gas deal with energy companies — to the cabinet.

According to reports Sunday, the prime minister was pinning his hopes on persuading members of the Joint (Arab) List to skip the vote in exchange for a significant increase to budgets for the Arab community. By late Sunday morning, the party had denied reaching an agreement with Netanyahu, and said its 13-strong Knesset faction would attend the session to oppose the gas deal.

Netanyahu, whose razor-thin coalition of just 61 MKs already struggles to maintain a majority, is disadvantaged by the expected abstentions of three ministers – Moshe Kahlon, Yoav Galant, and Haim Katz – over purported conflicts of interest. Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party also won’t be attending the vote Monday due to the death of his father last week, bringing the maximum number of coalition votes to 57 out of 120 MKs.

In the opposition, the Zionist Union party said all MKs would be present to vote against the deal, but according to the Globes business daily, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman were out of the country and were not returning in time to vote.

Last-minute lobbying was aimed at convincing Yisrael Beytenu lawmakers to back the deal, and Arab MKs to abstain.

Also holding up the vote was an unresolved High Court of Justice petition by an Israeli NGO seeking to block the deal. The state on Sunday night appealed to the High Court to let the vote continue as planned.

The US company Noble Energy and its Israeli partner Delek Group have faced a political backlash in recent months over the proposed deal with the government to develop of a number of sizable natural gas reserves discovered in Israeli waters in recent years.

The deal has been controversial, with critics, including former antitrust commissioner David Gilo, expressing concern that the deal created a de facto monopoly that would lead to high gas prices for Israelis.

The issue was thrown into the spotlight when Gilo, while still antitrust commissioner, said last year that the Noble-Delek partnership resembled a monopoly, and called for opening Israel’s natural gas market to increased competition. Gilo tendered his resignation in May over the dispute.

Netanyahu has championed the controversial deal, saying it would pump billions of shekels into the economy.

Deri, who has the legal power to override the commissioner and approve a monopoly, told Knesset reporters last week that he would refrain from exercising his authority in the matter and would await the appointment of a new commissioner. Netanyahu said last Monday he would put off the vote until a new antitrust commissioner was appointed, but by Wednesday had submitted the motion approving the deal to the Knesset for review.

The prime minister’s renewed efforts to push the gas deal through the Knesset came after Egypt announced last week that a “supergiant” gas field was found off its coast, prompting panic among Israeli ministers over the years-long delays in drilling at Israel’s gas fields.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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