Netanyahu's American Donor 0; Israeli Environment 1

Howard Jonas' company IEI suffered a setback last week when its proposed fracking project in the Judean lowlands was nixed.

Tomer Appelbaum

In her 2013 book “The Confidante,” about the years in which she was a press adviser to some of Israel’s top politicians, Odelia Karmon harks back to the dramatic moment in 2006 when Benjamin Netanyahu sat her down in the lobby of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and gave her the lowdown about his close circle, including his big donors.

Here’s Karmon’s description of the prime minister’s sensitive filtering process: “Armed with various lists he’d compiled over the years, he sat with me on the brown leather sofa, fountain pen in hand. Bibi immersed himself completely in an effort to rank for me dozens of his acquaintances, based on how close they were to him, and how important. One, two, three, he catalogued them next to their name. Those who were closest to him got one or two asterisks next to the number … I was to cultivate them and stay in touch with all of them.”

According to material collected by the State Comptroller’s Office, one of the names, which Netanyahu had ranked “No. 2,” was of someone with whom the public may not have been familiar until recently: “Howard Jonas, IDT Corporation, New Jersey.” Jonas, who has donated to Netanyahu’s primary campaigns in the past, is the founder and owner of Israel Energy Initiatives, a company established in 2008 to develop oil shale in Israel.

IEI suffered a setback two weeks ago, when the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee rejected its plan to set up a pilot facility to produce oil from shale in the Judean lowlands, at a site within the Green Line, near Beit Guvrin. The proposed technique would involve extracting oil from shale by way of exposing the rock to underground heating at very high temperatures for a few years. It is controversial because it is liable to cause contamination of the groundwater and the soil.

Thus ended, for the time being, a titanic six-year struggle between Jonas, joined by his representatives in Israel (led by Efraim “Effie” Eitam, former housing minister and leader of the National Union party), and a coalition of local governments, experts and environmental groups, spearheaded by the Environmental Protection Ministry, which waged a determined campaign against the project – and won.

Last week, Eitam, the chairman of Genie Israel Holdings, Ltd., which oversees the U.S.-based Genie Oil & Gas company’s activities in Israel, including those of IEI, angrily rebutted intimations of “big capital-government relations” that purportedly helped the oil shale in-situ production project get as far as it did.

But the close ties between IEI’s founder and entrepreneur and Israel’s prime minister are not the only example of people from Netanyahu’s circle who helped the project as it moved from stage to stage, in the face of opposition from residents, environmental and geological experts, civil authorities and the Environmental Protection Ministry.

Thus it was that Netanyahu’s private lawyer, David Shimron, was chosen to represent the corporation in its efforts to obtain a license from the planning and building committee. The head of the National Economic Council in the Prime Minister’s Office, Eugene Kendall, pushed for the project almost from the start, and two weeks ago, just before the committee made its decision, published an opinion urging that objections to the undertaking be rejected. Even the prime minister’s former chief of staff, Natan Eshel, who was dismissed under a rather dark cloud, worked with IEI for a time, as Haaretz Magazine (in Hebrew) revealed in an investigative report last year.

Now, after the planning committee’s unequivocal decision, supported by a large majority, Netanyahu is probably actually pleased: The involvement of members of his circle, combined with remarks by senior figures in IEI quoting his unreserved support for the project, could have caused him no few headaches in the years ahead.

It’s hard to think of rhetorical weapons that Eitam and IEI’s top brass didn’t wield in their battle to be given the right to extract oil from shale. They talked about “energy independence,” promised that Israel would have “more oil than Saudi Arabia,” accused those who objected of “going against Zionism,” and likened the opposition to oil-shale production to the opposition that was originally mounted to the Iron Dome project.

For its part, the Environmental Protection Ministry can chalk up a triple victory. First, its representatives were able to redirect the debate from empty slogans back to substance, enabling its scientists to present international reports and opinions warning against risks to groundwater, air and soil. Second, its officials, as well as staff from the Ministry of Agriculture, proved their ability to stand up to personal threats made against them because of the doubts they expressed about the project.

But the major achievement of the environmentalists lies in their success in overcoming the prime goal of Eitam and IEI: to split the licensing process. From the outset, IEI’s people argued that they should be allowed to carry out a “limited” pilot project, without reference to the future ramifications of the production process. This was the principle at the basis of the corporation’s presentations to the High Court of Justice, the Knesset’s Interior Committee, the heads of the regional councils and also worried residents.

However, the district committee made it clear that this approach was unacceptable, and insisted that the future environmental implications of the commercial production of the oil itself must also (and perhaps primarily) be taken into account. The committee was rock-solid, not fractured by pressurized efforts, no matter how fluid.

The writer is an investigative reporter whose work has appeared in Yedioth Ahronoth and on Channel 10, as well as on the Walla! and 7th Eye websites.

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