The controversial natural gas framework agreement between Israel and the two commercial companies responsible for drilling was passed by the Knesset on Monday afternoon in a vote of 59 to 51.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now likely to use the Knesset vote as leverage to persuade Economy Minister Arye Dery to sign the agreement, though the economy minister said two weeks ago that he preferred to leave the issue for the next antitrust commissioner.
In the wake of the vote, Netanyahu lauded the decision. "This is a big day. We must bring gas into the Israeli economy and bring hundreds of billions of dollars to the education, welfare and health of Israeli citizens, and of course tens of billions in investments in the coming years."
Despite the vote, it is not yet clear whether the government has a majority for the transfer of Dery's responsibilities over the gas sector to the government. That clause was not included in the document voted on by the Knesset.
Among those voting for the agreement was the full Kulanu caucus, which decided before the vote to impose party discipline, and four Knesset members from the opposition Yisrael Beiteinu party.
Ministers Moshe Kahlon, Yoav Galant, Yisrael Katz and Haim Katz were absent from the plenum when the vote was held, as were six Knesset members.
Normally, the antitrust commissioner has to sign off on the deal. The current commissioner, David Gilo, opposes the deal, and although he has announced his resignation, the process of choosing a replacement and giving him time to study the issue could take months.
The economy minister can circumvent the antitrust commissioner by declaring that the issue has implications for national security – a power that Dery refuses to exercise.
The issue could thus remain in limbo for several more months, despite the Knesset's approval.
Earlier it was reported that Netanyahu would not bring the agreement to a vote due to his inability to secure a Knesset majority.
Most opposition factions announced on Sunday they would vote against both the transfer of powers and the declarative resolution. MK Masud Ganaim, faction chairman of the Joint List, said that, contrary to earlier media reports, this includes his faction.
The one exception is Yisrael Beiteinu, which decided to let its MKs vote their conscience on the declarative resolution. As a result, that resolution is expected to pass, since four of Yisrael Beiteinu’s six MKs have said they support the gas deal, while only one opposes it (the sixth, party chairman Avigdor Lieberman, is currently abroad).
However, in the crucial vote on the transfer of powers, the government currently faces a 56-56 tie.
Two of the coalition’s 61 MKs are unable to attend the vote – one because he’s abroad, another because he’s in mourning for his father. However, they have paired off with opposition MKs who are equally unable to attend. A third opposition MK (Lieberman) is also abroad, giving the coalition an additional edge.
But three coalition ministers who could vote in favor – Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon and Yoav Galant, and Likud’s Haim Katz – have announced they won’t be doing so, claiming that conflicts of interest bar them from any involvement in the gas deal. That leaves both the coalition and opposition with only 56 votes. And since all opposition MKs have said they will vote against the transfer of powers, this means the government lacks enough votes to pass the measure.
Nevertheless, it’s possible that behind-the-scenes deals are being made to convince a few opposition MKs to absent themselves from one or both of the votes.
In this regard, the government was primarily pinning its hopes on the Joint List. Last week, Netanyahu promised the Arab faction that the government would earmark an extra 900 million shekels ($229 million) for Arab towns over the next few years. In exchange, he hoped a few faction members would agree to skip the vote.
On Sunday, though, Ganaim said all of the party's MKs would show up and vote against both the declarative resolution and the transfer of powers. MK Ahmad Tibi, who was supposed to fly to Brussels, even postponed his trip so he could attend the vote.
Another possibility was that Netanyahu could declare the vote on the transfer of powers a confidence motion. That would theoretically obligate all coalition members to vote for it. But it’s not certain what Kahlon, Galant and Katz would do in this scenario.
Members of Netanyahu’s Likud party have also been trying to pressure Kahlon and Galant by threatening that if they don’t vote for the measure, Likud will thwart some of the flagship reforms Kulanu inserted into the Economic Arrangements Bill that accompanies the budget.
Another plot twist could come from the High Court of Justice. Last week, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel asked the court to issue a temporary injunction barring approval of the gas deal. Should the court accede to this request, the vote on the declarative resolution would have to be postponed. But the vote on the transfer of powers wasn’t included in the Movement for Quality Government’s request, so it could take place even if the court did issue an injunction.