Israeli Court Rejects State's Request to Remove Netanyahu From Oil-spill Lawsuit

Judge Rachel Lavi-Barkai also refuses to dismiss class-action suit by residents living near Evrona Nature Reserve, where 5 million liters of oil leaked from pipeline in December 2014.

A court has rejected the state’s request to remove the prime minister from the list of defendants in a lawsuit over a massive oil spill in the Evrona nature reserve some 18 months ago.

When the spill occurred at the southern Israel site in December 2014, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also serving as finance minister. The suit argues that the Finance Ministry is responsible for the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) – whose leaky pipeline was the source of the spill – and that responsibility rests in particular with the then-finance minister and the ministry’s accountant general, Michal Abadi-Boiangiu.

In her ruling on Tuesday, Be’er Sheva District Court Judge Rachel Lavi-Barkai also refused to reject out of hand the class-action suit, which was filed by several residents of the area near Evrona.

“It can’t be said at this stage, based on what is alleged in the suit, that the plaintiffs haven’t provided grounds for a suit against the state, the finance minister and the accountant general, given the possibility that they were controlling shareholders of or officials at EAPC,” she wrote.

The five million liters of oil that leaked from the EAPC pipeline was one of the worst cases of pollution in Israel’s history.

The state had argued that the suit should be thrown out because it’s unreasonable to sue the state or its officials for damage caused by a third party, i.e. EAPC. But the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that the finance minister and accountant general are directly responsible for EAPC and manage it de facto.

EAPC was established in the 1960s as a joint venture between the governments of Israel and Iran, mainly to transport Iranian oil from the port of Eilat to refineries elsewhere in Israel. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, the joint venture ceased and EAPC remained under the Israeli government’s control. Iran subsequently sought reimbursement for its share of EAPC’s assets via international arbitration. Because of the sensitivity of that case, which has been going on for years, almost all information about EAPC is classified.

Consequently, the state has refused to divulge any information about the role of specific government officials in running the company and has also asked that the entire suit be heard in camera – a request the plaintiffs oppose.

Lavi-Barkai said it was this lack of information that made it impossible for her to decide at this stage that the suit is groundless.