Israel Chemicals received two blows on Sunday, as the Knesset Finance Committee approved recommendations to raise taxes on natural resources and treasury officials demanded hundreds of millions of shekels in connection with royalties due going back to the year 2000.
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In a stormy session, lawmakers approved the recommendations of the government’s Sheshinski II committee in a unanimous vote that marked an important victory for Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Sheshinski recommendations will now be incorporated into the Budget Arrangements Law, which must be approved by parliament by November 19.
ICL, whose share price fell 2.2% to 20.57 shekels ($5.24) in Tel Aviv Stock Exchange trading, said it was considering an appeal to the High Court of Justice to block the Sheshinski recommendations from being made law. The law does not cover oil and gas companies, which are subject to different legislation, which leaves ICL as the only major company to be affected.
The law imposes a windfall-profits tax of 25% on all companies that exploit Israel’s natural resources if and when they achieve an annual return on investment of 14%. The rate will rise to as much as 42% for returns in excess of 20%.
The Sheshinksi proposals were once estimated to be worth 500 million shekels in extra revenues to the government, but with the price of ICL’s key product, potash, in the doldrums the tax take is now expected to be considerably less.
MKs did agree to one change in the recommendations, namely that the proceeds from the windfall tax go to a special fund for creating jobs in the region. Lawmakers were also told ICL would not be entitled to any other special benefits before its mining license for the Dead Sea expires in 2030.
ICL has suspended nearly $2 billion in investment in Israel because of the plans. Instead, it has been expanding operations and buying companies in China, Britain and Spain.
Kahlon welcomed the committee’s approval and said it was a “huge achievement for the people of Israel," adding: “Israel’s natural resources belong to the public and the citizens should be the ones who will benefit.”
But Nir Gilad, ICL’s chairman, warned the committee that the new taxes would come at the cost of further investing by ICL in its plants in the southern Negev region. “In the past five years, time after time laws have been passed that hurt people and the company Today is a sad day for the Negev and the company.”
His comments raised MKs’ hackles, with Miki Rosenthal (Zionist Union) shouting back, “Take back the license” and Shelly Yachimovich (Zionist Union) calling Gilad’s remarks about strangling investment “blackmail” and accused him of “holding the economy hostage.”
Meanwhile, Finance Ministry officials said ICL owed somewhere between about 230 million and 460 million shekels for interest and inflation-linkage on royalties due on profits the company earned going back to 2000.
The dispute relates to a decision by an arbitration panel that had earlier ruled that ICL owed royalties not just on profits accrued from extracting minerals but on profits from its downstream activities, too. ICL estimated the back royalties at about $152 million and paid the sum as well as an extra 30 million shekels it owed for 2014-15.
Those calculations incorporated a relatively high interest rate based on the rates ICL was paying on bonds it has issued during the relevant years. But the treasury wasn’t satisfied with ICL’s assessment and retained three outside consultants to value interest and linkage owed on back royalties.
In addition, the treasury accused ICL of using improper calculations to value its downstream sales. Officials said they had discovered that ICL routinely based its downstream profits on sales between different subsidiaries of the company rather than on market prices to third parties.
Officials said they didn’t yet know the extent of the practice but it appears it saved the company a lot of money. In one case that was examined by the treasury, the price paid internally were 24% lower on average than what was paid by outside customers.
ICL said the calculations were unfair. “The government is demanding interest that violates the terms of the license and the law on interest rates and is justifying this as a fine for failing to pay royalties’ on time,” it said. “But the way royalties’ were calculated is the same way they have been since time immemorial, including when [the ICL unit] Dead Sea Works and ICL were government companies.”