Netanyahu defends controversial gas deal in court

JERUSALEM • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared before the country's Supreme Court at the weekend to defend a contentious natural gas deal.

"Today, I appeared before the Supreme Court," he told visiting US Jewish leaders at a conference in Jerusalem on Sunday evening.

"I asked to appear before the Supreme Court. It's the first time an Israeli prime minister has asked to appear before the Supreme Court in our history," he said.

The deal he champions concerns the development of the Leviathan field in the eastern Mediterranean, described as one of the largest recent natural gas discoveries.

"The current plan has no alternative, and if it is not approved, it will cause the country long-term harm," he said in court, according to news reports. "Without this plan, there will be no competition, no development, no investment," he added.

Speaking at the conference later, he said: "Israel can be an energy-exporting country."

Access to the courtroom was restricted, with no broadcasting or recording allowed. Neither the government nor the court released details of Mr Netanyahu's address.

Critics say the deal pushed by Mr Netanyahu between the government and a consortium, including US firm Noble Energy, overly favours the firms involved.

There is a petition before the courts to block the deal.

There have also been allegations that Mr Netanyahu engaged in political manoeuvring to override anti-trust authorities.

Currently, only the Tamar field, which is located west of the port of Haifa, is in production. The government says depending on a single source - a potential target for sabotage - means diversifying supply is of strategic as well as economic importance.

"We shall not have energy security as long as we have only one gas field that is within range of missile fire" from enemies such as Hizbollah in South Lebanon, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told the court on Feb 3.

Israel's monopolies commission opposed an initial agreement between the government, Noble and its Israeli partner Delek, leading to months of further negotiations under strong political pressure.

To sidestep the commission, Mr Netanyahu used an obscure clause allowing the deal to be pushed through by the economy minister. After the incumbent minister resigned rather than overrule the regulators, Mr Netanyahu took over the post himself.

The size of the Leviathan field is estimated to be 535 billion cubic metres of natural gas, along with 34.1 million barrels of condensate.

Noble and Delek also control Tamar, which holds 250 billion cubic metres of natural gas, and lies 40 nautical miles west of Haifa.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2016, with the headline 'Netanyahu defends controversial gas deal in court'. Print Edition | Subscribe