EXCLUSIVE: Adelson Encouraged Netanyahu to Streamline Israel's Gas Regulations

At height of 2014 Gaza war, casino tycoon sent message on behalf of the U.S.-Israel Business Initiative - of which Noble Energy is a member; PM denies 'promoting Adelson's interests in any way.'

Eyal Warshavsky / BauBau

July 17, 2014, was a very eventful day. It was the day the Israel Defense Forces began its ground offensive in Operation Protective Edge, tanks raced to the northern Gaza Strip and dozens of rockets were fired at Israel. That same day, the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem received a letter from one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s staunchest supporters: U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

Adelson is familiar as the owner of casinos in Las Vegas and Macau, the publisher of free daily Israel Hayom and being a major donor to the Republican Party and leading philanthropist to Jewish causes. But he turned to Netanyahu in his capacity as chairman of the U.S.-Israel Business Initiative, an organization that operates under the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – one of the largest and most influential lobbies in the United States. One of the board members is the senior vice president of Noble Energy’s Eastern Mediterranean operations, J. Keith Elliott, who is in charge of the company’s interests in Israel. Noble Energy specializes in searching for and producing natural gas, and is a partner in the Tamar and Leviathan gas fields off Israel’s coast.

According to its website, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce represents the interests of more than three million businesses in the United States; it is not a public or political organization and represents only business interests. The chamber is known to have conservative leanings and usually supports the Republican Party. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a research institute that examines how lobbying influences public policy in the United States, members of the Chamber of Commerce spent in excess of $124 million on lobbying in 2014. Adelson, who in the previous presidential election campaign is said to have invested up to $150 million to support Republican candidates, was appointed chairman of the Chamber in 2011. A year later, it was reported he was among the organization’s contributors.

The U.S.-Israel Business Initiative represents U.S. companies on issues related to macroeconomics, investment and trade policy, and, according to its website, to “enhance the ability of member companies to access the Israeli market.” The initiative “works to influence trade and investment policies with both the U.S. and Israeli governments.” Partners in the group include some of the largest corporations in the world, which are likely to be influenced by the initiatives proposed by Adelson: Noble Energy, Teva, Coca-Cola, Morgan Stanley, BlackBerry, Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands, and others.

“Dear Prime Minister,” began Adelson’s letter, “I am writing to you in my capacity as Chairman of the U.S. Chamber’s U.S.-Israel Business Initiative. We know that this is a critical time for Israel and our bilateral relationship. Even as Israel undergoes severe security threats and challenges, there is unfortunately a growing chorus in the United States calling for the boycott of Israeli goods and other economic sanctions targeted at Israel. I therefore believe the U.S. Chamber should play a very positive and constructive role for the economic security of Israel at this time.”

Therefore, continued Adelson, “with your support and the support of others, we plan to be engaged on several important initiatives.”

Adelson’s three-page letter spells out the lobby’s initiative to strengthen economic cooperation between the countries. Among other things, Adelson proposes updating the Free Trade Agreement between Israel and the United States, opening an office of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Israel, organizing missions to Israel by U.S. governors and increasing cooperation in research and development.

The only industry mentioned specifically in the letter is the natural gas market. Adelson’s initiative on this subject is prominent in the letter and is mentioned in two different paragraphs: First, Adelson wants to streamline regulation of natural gas in Israel; second, he proposes the formation of a joint campaign to explain the benefits of the industry.

Gas regulation in Israel is critical for Noble Energy, the member of the lobbying organization on whose behalf Adelson turned to Netanyahu. In effect, the other subjects are worded in general terms, and only this paragraph relates to a specific issue that is a subject of controversy in Israel.

Noble Energy, together with the Delek Group, is one of the controlling owners of the Tamar natural gas field. It is conducting negotiations with the government over the regulatory conditions of this field and other fields in which it is a partner, including Leviathan. “Israel’s historic discoveries of natural gas mark an exciting new chapter in joint commercial cooperation,” wrote Adelson. “Unprecedented U.S.-Israeli commercial cooperation particularly with respect to offshore natural gas exploration and production, has generated valuable opportunities for American companies as well as important economic and security benefits for the people of Israel. We propose technical assistance to the relevant agencies in Israel responsible for developing a modern regulatory policy framework for hydrocarbon investment...

“Your office has been very supportive of the U.S. Chamber’s efforts,” wrote Adelson in summary, “including just a few weeks ago, collaborating on a Chamber-led business mission to Israel. We look to enhance our work with you to advance these important initiatives.”

About a month later, on August 14, Adelson received a reply on behalf of the then-director general of the PMO, Harel Locker. “Dear Mr. Adelson,” wrote Locker, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has forwarded me your letter and has asked that I spearhead the effort to advance our common goals. Please be assured that the Prime Minister appreciates and shares your desire to continue to further strengthen the already robust economic ties between our countries.

“We look forward to working with the Chamber of Commerce to advance the initiatives detailed in your letter. We have already begun laying the groundwork for a strategic economic dialogue our governments, which I expect to begin in the near future. This dialogue will help to promote economic partnerships and cooperation between our two countries in both the public and the private sectors,” wrote Locker.

And in fact, about a month later, representatives of most of the government ministries, as well as representatives from the Alternative Fuels Administration and the National Cyber Bureau (which operate in the PMO), received an invitation from Gabi Golan – the deputy cabinet secretary and the prime minister’s adviser for planning and development – for a discussion about “Promoting Economic ties with the United States.” Attached to the invitation was a single document as a basis for the discussion: Adelson’s letter.

The discussion convened by Golan took place in mid-September, at the Economy Ministry in Jerusalem.

This week, Golan said the discussion centered on cooperation and economic dialogue, with members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce among others. He didn’t recall that the letter was attached to the original invitation, but confirmed it was mentioned during the meeting. “Everyone presented his ministry’s interests in the interface with the U.S. government and U.S. businessmen. We spoke about various problems.”

I assume not every businessman writing to the prime minister would receive such a response and such swift action?

“I have no idea. I’m not familiar with that. It’s not my area of expertise. I’m a professional, I’m not involved in politics. I do things as well as I know how.”

Conversations with those who participated in the discussion indicate some felt uncomfortable with the reason for convening it. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, explained one person – who asked not to be named – is interested in institutionalizing direct ties with the Israeli government. Adelson’s letter, he explained, was one more way of trying to do so. “In my opinion, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce used Adelson because they know he has direct access to the prime minister. He wrote him a letter on Israeli-U.S. economic relations and, as a result, the prime minister responded and is activating an entire system in order to examine the issues,” he said.

“The prime minister transfers the issue to Harel Locker, who invites all government ministries so they will reply to Mr. Adelson regarding what is, in effect, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce document. Someone said during the discussion, ‘Let’s not forget, we’re coming to serve the interests of the State of Israel, of the Israeli business community, not of the Americans. It’s very nice that Mr. Adelson wrote the letter, but first we have to see what we’re getting out of all this.’”

Another participant described the meeting as bizarre. “It was an attempt to build a platform to enable business organizations to be part of the official decision-making mechanism,” he said.

Haaretz asked the U.S.-Israel Business Initiative for a response, but none was forthcoming at press time.

An adviser to Sheldon Adelson submitted the following response on Adelson’s behalf: “The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, like all other Chambers of Commerce throughout the world, generally advocates for business relationships between countries or states, but does not advocate for any one company within an industry so as to avoid favoritism and conflicts.

“I lent the association my name as honorary chairman and I don’t get involved whatsoever with any specific company – not even my own. I am only interested in enhancing and advocating for a robust, commercial relationship between the United States and Israel. I am not aware of the companies that are part of the U.S.-Israel Business Initiative, including those several [the writer] lists here. I have no recollection of the specifics of the letter that he refers to.

“I never discussed that letter or any other message regarding any other company with the prime minister. I have never spoken to any person from Noble Energy.

“I have [held] no discussions with the prime minister on economic issues or on behalf of private businesses whatsoever, including my own. The people who find my support of Israel problematic – [that] is their problem, not mine. There is no business relationship for any company, including my own, with the PM, nor have I ever asked him for one. My interest is only to create, as I said, a more robust macroeconomic commercial relationship between the two countries.”

PMO: 'No connection'

The Prime Minister’s Office on Wednesday denied the assertion that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was involved in promoting Sheldon Adelson’s affairs in any way.

“Contrary to your assertion, U.S.-Israel Business Initiative operates under the American Chamber of Commerce to advance investments and mutual trade ties between Israel and the United States. It has recently hosted a number of events intended to encourage investments in Israel, including events in the cyber field,” the PMO’s statement said.

“Contrary to your assertion, the discussion dealt with several issues and plans that were launched a long time before that letter was received. This includes a work plan based on a memo of understandings signed between Prime Minister Netanyahu and the governor of California in March 2014. The gas issue was not raised in that discussion.”

“The governments of Israel and the PMO have acted regularly over the years to advance a dialog with the American administration regarding various economic issues. An inter-ministerial discussion was held, as customary in matters of this kind, as part of this. Such correspondence is a matter of routine and takes place in response to many approaches made to the PMO.”

“Contrary to your assertion, there is no connection between the desire to advance economic relations with the United States and the described circumstances. Israel’s government holds and promotes ties with commerce chambers worldwide, with the intention of increasing the trade ties between the states and strengthening the economic relations.”