At Last Minute, Netanyahu Postpones Key Knesset Vote on Gas Deal

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Drilling platform at the Tamar natural gas field. Credit: Albatross

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu folded at the last minute on Monday morning, postponing a key Knesset vote on a deal between the government and natural gas firms.

Netanyahu was struggling to secure a Knesset majority for legislation that would allow the deal to be approved. The move is necessary to circumvent the antitrust commissioner, who would normally have to sign off on the deal. The current commissioner, David Gilo, opposes the deal, and although he has announced his resignation, the process of choosing a replacement and giving him time to study the issue would take months. Netanyahu considers such a lengthy delay unacceptable and wants to approve the framework deal as soon as possible.

Alternatively, the economy minister can circumvent the antitrust commissioner by declaring that the issue has implications for national security. But Economy Minister Arye Dery refuses to exercise this power.

Netanyahu therefore decided to hold a discussion on the transfer of power from Dery to the full cabinet along with the gas deal.

It is still unclear when the gas agreement will be submitted for a Knesset vote.

Most opposition factions announced on Sunday they would vote against both the transfer of powers and the declarative resolution. MK Masud Ganaim, faction chairman of the Joint Arab List, said that, contrary to earlier media reports, this includes his faction.

The one exception is Yisrael Beiteinu, which decided to let its MKs vote their conscience on the declarative resolution. As a result, that resolution is expected to pass, since four of Yisrael Beiteinu’s six MKs have said they support the gas deal, while only one opposes it (the sixth, party chairman Avigdor Lieberman, is currently abroad).

However, in the crucial vote on the transfer of powers, the government currently faces a 56-56 tie.

Two of the coalition’s 61 MKs are unable to attend the vote – one because he’s abroad, another because he’s in mourning for his father. However, they have paired off with opposition MKs who are equally unable to attend. A third opposition MK (Lieberman) is also abroad, giving the coalition an additional edge.

But three coalition ministers who could vote in favor – Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon and Yoav Galant, and Likud’s Haim Katz – have announced they won’t be doing so, claiming that conflicts of interest bar them from any involvement in the gas deal. That leaves both the coalition and opposition with only 56 votes. And since all opposition MKs have said they will vote against the transfer of powers, this means the government lacks enough votes to pass the measure.

Nevertheless, it’s possible that behind-the-scenes deals are being made to convince a few opposition MKs to absent themselves from one or both of the votes.

In this regard, the government was primarily pinning its hopes on the Joint Arab List. Last week, Netanyahu promised the Arab faction that the government would earmark an extra 900 million shekels ($229 million) for Arab towns over the next few years. In exchange, he hoped a few faction members would agree to skip the vote.

On Sunday, though, Ganaim said all JAL MKs would show up and vote against both the declarative resolution and the transfer of powers. JAL MK Ahmad Tibi, who was supposed to fly to Brussels, even postponed his trip so he could attend the vote.

Another possibility was that Netanyahu could declare the vote on the transfer of powers a confidence motion. That would theoretically obligate all coalition members to vote for it. But it’s not certain what Kahlon, Galant and Katz would do in this scenario.

Members of Netanyahu’s Likud party have also been trying to pressure Kahlon and Galant by threatening that if they don’t vote for the measure, Likud will thwart some of the flagship reforms Kulanu inserted into the Economic Arrangements Bill that accompanies the budget.

Another plot twist could come from the High Court of Justice. Last week, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel asked the court to issue a temporary injunction barring approval of the gas deal. Should the court accede to this request, the vote on the declarative resolution would have to be postponed. But the vote on the transfer of powers wasn’t included in the Movement for Quality Government’s request, so it could take place even if the court did issue an injunction.

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