Benjamin Netanyahu, the Economy Ministry’s Absent Minister

Since he took on the extra burden three weeks ago, Netanyahu has not visited the ministry once.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Arye Dery in the Knesset in 2015.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Since he took over the Economy Ministry earlier this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had almost nothing to do with its operations – even though it’s the second most important ministry on financial affairs.

Netanyahu has not visited the ministry’s office since he took over from Arye Dery on November 1 and shows little interest in its doings, which include foreign trade, supervision of government investment aid, financial assistance to high-tech and the enforcement of labor and antitrust laws.

Netanyahu’s role has been limited to being updated by officials and signing documents. Administration and spending issues have been left in the hands of Director General Amit Lang.

The minister’s office has been emptied of staff save for Shai Lindner, who was originally appointed by Naftali Bennett when he was economy minister in the last government and stayed on when Dery took over. Another aide has the job of coordinating issues with the Prime Minister’s Office.

Netanyahu’s absence isn’t surprising since he’s also serving as foreign minister and communications minister. He added the economy portfolio to his list of cabinet jobs with one goal in mind – to replace Dery, who had refused to sign a waiver that would exempt the natural gas cartel from antitrust scrutiny.

All the lack of interest, however, is expected to change December 6 or shortly thereafter when the committee seeking an antitrust commissioner to replace David Gilo taps a preferred candidate.

Gilo, who stood down over the summer, was the one who ruled that the cartel violated antitrust rules, setting off months of efforts by Netanyahu and his staff to find a solution. Gilo left office with his decision intact.

Not long after that Knesset Economic Affairs Committee will wind up its hearing on the natural gas framework, which deals with issues like which company can own what stake in Israel’s gas fields.

With the hearings over – the committee has no power to block or alter the framework – Netanyahu will move as quickly as possible to sign the antitrust waiver, which as economy minster he is entitled to do under Section 52 of the country’s antitrust law.

That is, unless opponents of the framework appeal to the High Court of Justice, which is almost certain to happen. After Netanyahu signs the waiver, the new antitrust commissioner will have no say on issues relating to the gas cartel, but he could be asked by the court to offer his opinion, so Netanyahu will want someone not too critical of the framework.

The controversy over the next antitrust commissioner, however, has now grown to include the issue of Cellcom’s plan to buy rival cellphone operator Golan Telecom.

Opponents are concerned that a merger would undo the competitive market created by the 2012 reforms that have led to low mobile rates. They fear that Netanyahu – who is closed to Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq and its Pelephone mobile unit – will seek a commissioner who will approve the merger.

On Sunday, however, media reports quoted sources saying the prime minister opposed the merger, although many observers believe Netanyahu was leaking remarks to create a smokescreen for his real intentions.