Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz held a news conference yesterday to deplore what he called a smear campaign against Eytan Sheshinski, the chairman of the committee considering changes to royalties paid by firms extracting the country's natural resources to the state.

Steinitz said he was speaking out to back the Sheshinski Committee in the face of "an intolerable pressure campaign" against its members.

"The personal smears against Prof. Eytan Sheshinski, the harassment, the demonstrations in front of his house, the attempts to meddle with him and his family ... all this is unacceptable," Steinitz said.

He said he viewed some of the acts, even if they were not criminal, as an assault on democracy and acceptable norms.

The finance minister's remarks were directed at a campaign accusing Sheshinski of supporting "Arab gas" based on his wife's volunteer role at the New Israel Fund, which has supported higher royalties on natural gas. Sheshinski's detractors accuse him of a conflict of interest as a result.

He has also been accused of a conflict because he is member of the board at Psagot's mutual fund division. People sponsored by the Land of Israel Forum, a student group with ties to the political right, have demonstrated in front of Sheshinski's home.

The justice and finance ministries found no basis for a conflict as a result of Sheshinski's affiliation with Psagot or his wife's involvement with the New Israel Fund. Deputy Attorney General Avi Licht said these affiliations were not grounds for arguing that Sheshinski would be biased toward Egyptian gas.

He said the Psagot board on which Sheshinski sits has no influence on investment decisions. Regarding Sheshinski's wife's membership on the international board of the New Israel Fund, Licht found that most of her volunteer work involved accompanying donors visiting Israel and that she has no role in setting organizational policy.

Nonetheless a group calling itself the Organization for the Promotion of Another Way filed a petition yesterday with the High Court of Justice for a show cause order asking that Sheshinski be taken off the committee. The court gave the state seven days to respond.

"Anyone who wishes to express his opinion can do so, and those who are involved in the oil and gas sector, if they have the money, are entitled to hire half the publicists in the country and pay them hundreds of thousands of dollars for their opinion," Steinitz said.

"It's legitimate, and it's legitimate to publish the opinion across entire pages in the press, but it is inconceivable that they would try to personally harass and attack the committee and its members. All the more so the committee chairman - a well-known professor who took on the task as a volunteer and agreed to my request to chair it."

Steinitz said it was important to remember that although Sheshinski was strong, the next time professors were called on to provide advice and assistance, they might not agree because of the harassment Sheshinski suffered.

Steinitz turned to Sheshinski, who was present at the news conference. "You volunteered to serve the state and the people, and you deserve the thanks and praise of the Israeli government and the public," he said.

Sheshinski, for his part, said "I don't know if I am strong, but I am firm in my opinion." He added that the finance minister had given the committee's members free rein to act professionally to do what they felt was best.

The Movement for Quality Government has called on Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to look into reports on efforts to delegitimize the committee.