Economy Minister Arye Dery threw another wrench into the process of winning approval of the natural gas framework agreement, saying Wednesday he would prefer to wait for a new antitrust commissioner to clear the deal.
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“Right now my inclination is that even if the framework is approved by the Knesset, it would be best for the new antitrust commissioner to deal with it when he enters office,” Dery told Knesset correspondents in a briefing.
If Dery doesn’t change his mind, he could delay by months final approval of the framework, which sets out terms for how Israel’s natural gas industry will operate. The cabinet has approved the framework, but it still faces the twin hurdles of approval by the Knesset and by the antitrust commissioner.
But the current commissioner, David Gilo, has refused to sign off on the framework, saying it gives the energy companies Delek Group and Noble Energy too much control over the industry. He is due to step down next Tuesday, but no permanent replacement has been named yet.
Dery’s remarks sent oil and gas shares plummeting on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange on Wednesday. The oil and gas index ended down 2.5% on Wednesday, with Delek Drilling falling 4.2% to 14.13 shekels ($3.60) and Isramco down 3.8% to 74 agorot.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been pushing hard to get the framework approved against vociferous opposition in the Knesset and the media, had been counting on Dery as economy minister to use his powers to override Gilo on the basis of national security needs.
All along, however, Dery has been giving mixed signals, saying he would not act until after the Knesset voted, but approving the framework in a cabinet vote earlier this month.
Sources said finding a new commissioner would take at least a month and then he or she would have to review the issue. The new commissioner would then have to turn to the antitrust court, which could take as much as another six months to review the case.
In all events, Dery didn’t signal he was in any rush to find a successor.
“I discussed it with the civil service commissioner, Moshe Dayan, and I hope that we will soon be able to report the good news that we’ve formed a search committee for a new antitrust commissioner,” he said. He denied he was using the issue to win concessions from Netanyahu on the budget or other issues.
In a meeting on Wednesday that sources described as tense, the prime minster said he was still determined to bring the framework to the Knesset next Wednesday in a special session, so long as Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party agrees to support it. On Wednesday, Lieberman reiterated his party’s support for the framework.
The government has just a one-seat majority in the Knesset and a handful of Knesset members have recused themselves from voting on the framework, which means Netanyahu needs opposition support to ensure a majority.
The government has yet to request a special session of the Knesset plenum but has until Monday to do so. Netanyahu is expected to put heavy pressure on Dery in the meantime.