Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared before a panel of justices from the High Court of Justice on Sunday to defend his government's plan for the development of Israel's major offshore natural gas reserves. The court is considering challenges to the plan, which gives control of the major offshore Tamar field, which is currently in production, and the much larger Leviathan field which is not yet producing gas, to a cartel led by Houston-based Noble Energy and Israel's Delek Group.
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The court rejected the petitioners' request that they be allowed to question the prime minister in court. At the end of his remarks, Netanyahu left the courtroom without being asked any questions by the panel of justices.
"This is the first time that I have asked to appear before the high court, and to the best of my knowledge, it's the first time in the history of Israel that a prime minister has requested this," Netanyahu told the panel. Warning that the country must act quickly to take advantage of the potential presented by its gas reserves, he said the plan that his cabinet and the Knesset approved has no realistic substitute.
In his capacity as economy minister, one of the posts that he fills in addition to prime minister, Netanyahu took the controversial decision to invoke Clause 52, a provision of the antitrust laws that enables the minister to bypass antitrust considerations when diplomatic and security considerations require it. The use of Clause 52 is a central issue in the case before the high court.
Netanyahu invoked the clause after the antitrust commissioner at the time, David Gilo, initially announced concessions to the gas consortium and then backtracked. Gilo raised concern over the implications of the monopoly control that the companies would have over most of Israel's natural gas. He ultimately resigned over the issue. Also a matter of controversy in the gas framework is a provision that would give the consortium of gas companies immunity from regulatory changes for ten to 15 years.
In his court appearance, Netanyahu roundly criticized Gilo's conduct in failing to move forward with the original plan that Gilo himself had worked out with the companies. "The commissioner created a major crisis in the gas economy and required me to intervene and restore confidence in the government's ability to advance the economy," he told the court.
Addressing the security aspects of the natural gas plan, the prime minister noted the country's current reliance on a single gas pipeline to bring the natural gas to shore. "Our enemies know this," he said, and the country is surrounded by enemies: "Israel is exposed to the threats from the south, from the north and from the east."
In addition to the security aspects of the gas plan, Netanyahu highlighted the diplomatic basis for invocating Clause 52 and what he said was his effort to use natural gas to further regional cooperation. "We are liable to lose our cooperation with Jordan, the Palestinians, Cyprus, Egypt and the European Union" if the plan does not proceed, he warned.