By Ari Rabinovitch
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will take control of the Economy Ministry to fast-track a plan to develop huge offshore natural gas deposits after a minister who had been holding up the plan stepped down.
Economy Minister Aryeh Deri, who had opposed waiving normal antitrust laws to give rapid approval to a framework deal to develop the gas fields off Israel’s Mediterranean coast, said he had offered his resignation.
His decision allows Netanyahu to take the helm of the Economy Ministry and give final approval to a framework deal he reached in August with Texas-based Noble Energy and Israel’s Delek Group.
The outline plan leaves the partners in control of the country’s largest gas field, Leviathan, while forcing them to sell smaller, yet sizable, assets.
Deri could have deemed the agreement important enough for national security to exempt it from normal antitrust laws but refused to do so, saying it would set a dangerous precedent.
Netanyahu said he had no problem making such a ruling.
“Minister Deri informed me of his intent to resign from the Economy Ministry in order to allow for the completion of the proceedings. The ministry will revert to me and I will authorise the outline (agreement),” Netanyahu said in a statement.
The plan was opposed by Israel’s anti-monopoly regulator who argued it did not open the market to sufficient competition, and he later resigned in protest.
The agreement became the focus of national debate.
Critics said Netanyahu was giving Noble and Delek too much power over the country’s gas reserves, while Netanyahu said it was more important to get the gas out of the ground quickly.
While the debate raged, Noble and Delek froze investments and Leviathan remains undeveloped. A number of long-term, multi-billion-dollar export deals being negotiated with buyers in Egypt and Jordan were also put on hold.
Various alternatives were considered for breaking the logjam.
One option would have been for a parliamentary vote to transfer the power to bypass the antitrust authority from Deri to Netanyahu’s entire cabinet, but Netanyahu, with just a single-seat majority, failed to muster enough support.
The latest political manoeuvring sees Deri shifting jobs to head a ministry in charge of developing and investing in communities in Israel’s periphery.
Once the gas agreement is approved, Noble and Delek have said they would funnel close to $10 billion into Israel to develop Leviathan and expand a second field, Tamar. They will also put shares in Tamar and two smaller fields up for sale.
With news of the pending approval, Leader Capital Markets, one of Israel’s top investment banks, said it was resuming stock coverage for energy and exploration companies.
The outline will have “a positive impact” on the sector, said Leader analyst Yehonatan Shohat, and “paves the way for the signing of export deals and brings long-term regulatory certainty.
The implications for Cyprus were not immedittely clear. Israel’s demand to be involved in the development approval processes of the gas findings in Block 12 – ‘Aphrodite’ – of Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) has delayed the signing of a co-operation agreement with Cyprus, and possibly development of the reservoir, according to Globes.co.il, an Israeli business portal , last month.
The website said Cyprus and Israel had been in negotiations over arrangements for the joint development of oil and natural gas reservoirs shared by the two countries, including a project to build a shared pipeline for exporting natural gas to Europe and laying an electrical cable between Israel and Cyprus.
Citing unnamed sources, the website said Israeli energy minister Yuval Steinitz was delaying a trip to Cyprus until the negotiations were finished.
Israel claims the Aphrodite reservoir extends into its own EEZ, thus legitimising its demand to be included in the approval of development of the discovered reserve.
The Cypriot government, Globes said, was willing to discuss the matter, but no agreement has been reached.