08 February '16..
Last year it seemed as if doubts about Israel’s bright energy future were put to rest. A clever move by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government allowed the country’s Security Government to overrule an anti-trust commissioner who might have placed impossible legal obstacles in front of the effort to exploit the gas field called “Leviathan,” a massive off shore reserve. As Arthur Herman wrote in a 2014 cover story for COMMENTARY, the gas finds meant Israel was on the brink of becoming the world’s “next energy superpower.” After years of starts and stops and enough plot twists to fill a few novels, it appeared that Netanyahu had finally put in a place a plan that would allow the work to begin on Leviathan. More than that, recently concluded deals with Turkey and Greece and Cyprus to create an international pipeline to transport the gas ensured that the work would go forward and that there were international markets for Israel’s gas that would help enrich the nation even as its own energy needs were met.
But never underestimate the power of Israeli partisanship, bureaucratic inertia or the willingness of its courts to exert their influence on matters that ought to be the province of the executive or the legislature. The news today that Netanyahu has taken the unprecedented step of filing a personal affidavit to Israel’s high court shows just how seriously the government is taking the legal challenges that have been mounted to the gas deal that was supposed to be a fait accompli by now.
Netanyahu’s critics are accusing him of trying to intimidate the courts with a personal appeal. But while no prime minister has ever sought to play a role in a court case like this before, Netanyahu is right to treat the matter as one that requires unusual steps. If Israel’s judiciary heeds the efforts of a loose coalition of left-wingers and environmentalists, it will do more than delay the development of Leviathan. It may rob the country of an economic bonanza and undermine its security for decades to come.
In today’s Mosaic Magazine, Herman writes of the tangled path that the gas deal has followed. For the plan to succeed, the gas field had to be developed and then markets found for its product beyond Israel. Herman documents the perils involved with negotiations with an untrustworthy actor like Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as well as some of the domestic critics of the gas project. Some Israelis illogically think all the gas should be kept at home. Some think, despite all evidence to the contrary, that it will harm Israel’s environment. Still others are suspicious of the deal with Noble Energy and Israel’s Delek Corporation for developing the field and fear that the Texas-based company will profit too much from any such arrangement. By treating it as a monopoly that is suppressing competition rather than a national security necessity, the scheme will be derailed.
Netanyahu thought he had dealt with the latter threat and set the wheels in motion once and for all last June. But with Israel’s opposition parties seeking to play the populist card on the issue and Israel’s Supreme Court have a record of being willing to rule on issues that might normally rest in the hands of the nation’s elected leaders, the issue is still in doubt.
Opponents of the gas deal are trying to paint the issue as being one in which Netanyahu is grabbing power, eliminating oversight, and enabling a dangerous monopoly. But what they continue to fail to see is that in the world of energy economics, subjecting the Leviathan exploitation to the sort of parliamentary and judicial micromanagement they have in mind means that it will never happen. That’s fine for some hard line environmentalists, as well as those on the left who have never been comfortable with the idea of Israel as the “start-up” nation that provides a new blueprint for capitalism at its best.
But without the exploitation of Leviathan, the high hopes that Herman wrote about two years ago will be lost.
For seven decades, Jews joked about Moses bringing the Jews to the one country in the Middle East without natural resources. The discovery of offshore gas, as well as shale oil reserves, gave the lie to that old jest. But if Israeli political maneuvering winds up sinking the Noble-Delek deal and setting back the exploitation of Israel’s gas reserves, it will be more than a political setback for the prime minister. It will be a disaster for Israel that will weaken its economy, its quest for energy independence, and its security. In that context, Netanyahu is absolutely right to both invoke the issue of the country’s defense and to use the power of his office to stop the obstructionists from blowing up the country’s energy future. Those who care about Israel must hope that common sense prevails and that the courts will not succumb to the temptation of giving him a black eye at the cost of inflicting an incalculable injury on the Jewish state.
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