Thursday, December 24, 2015

"The Days of Our Years... Are Cut Off Swiftly"

By Rabbi Yisrael Rosen
Dean of the Zomet Institute

The above verse reads in Hebrew, "Gaz chish" – Tehillim 90:10. This is reminiscent of the English word "gas," a very current topic in today's news.

The Natural Gas Deal

During the last few days, the "Gas Deal" has begun its implementation, while the Supreme Court is still lying in ambush. This is a huge franchise deal for an American company (Noble Energy) together with an Israeli company (Delek Energy) to produce and sell natural gas from off the coast of Israel. The deal involves very significant gas reserves which were discovered during the last few years. It is predicted that these fields will produce enough gas to satisfy the energy needs of our country for decades to come.

Very few people understand the full details of this deal. Many more, but still a very small number, know unclear details and have a blurred understanding of the two sides of the dispute between the Prime Minister and his colleague the Energy Minister, who follows the Prime Minister's lead, and opponents from the political opposition and from the coalition who disagree about the value and the legality of this deal. And many more, who are still a very tiny fraction of everybody who is concerned about the issue, have strong opinions and feel that one side or the other of the controversy is absolutely right while the other side is making a huge mistake. However, it is clear that everybody – every single person – is aware that this matter involves a dramatic economic undertaking which will have a great impact on the future of the Israeli economy . In addition, everybody knows that the Prime Minister claims that the matter touches on Israel's foreign policy and security, because of issues of dependence or independence in future energy supplies and because the subject is linked to our relationships with enemy nations in the present and in the future (including the Palestinians).

In addition to the strong dispute between the coalition and the opposition, the subject is related to a harsh argument among economists at the macro level and economic forecasters, since the "deal" gives an explicit price for gas that will be developed, establishes tax rates, and allows some of the gas to be exported to foreign countries, without any way for Israel to change the conditions for the next decade or more. Another loud focus of the opposition stems from the fact that the deal sets up a monopoly, something that is normally illegal and has only been bypassed by claiming that the plans are a matter of "national security and foreign policy issues." Another colorful issue is related to the behavior of the Prime Minister, who was forced to take on an additional role as the Minister of Economics in order to overcome those who opposed or were unsure about the deal.

The Viewpoint of One who is not an Expert

I will allow myself to describe my feelings about the gas deal, as one whose economic knowledge is very rudimentary but who has well-developed ideas about the proper behavior of a Jewish nation.

There is one thing that I do know about economics – it is not an exact science, certainly not for any stretch of time as long as a decade. This is absolutely clear in Israel, a land whose status is exclusively subject to Divine predictions: "A land with the eyes of G-d upon it, from the beginning of the year until the year's end" [Devarim 11:12]. No science has yet been invented that can predict the economic future of a country surrounded by enemies, existing in a world filled with other countries that have plans to destroy it, and with an internal leftist faction which promotes boycotts against its own land. The entire multitude of learned papers presented to the many committees which opposed the gas deal are balanced out by estimates which reached the opposite conclusions, and they were all filled with many questions of their own.

This being the case, from my humble position I accept the recommendation of the Prime Minister, just as I accept the recommendations of my advisor in the bank – on condition that there are no claims that he has a personal interest in the matter. And that is a claim that has not been made! We can all remember the Prime Minister who was accused of initiating a political move (the "Disengagement") because of personal, family, economic, and legal needs – in order to save himself from prosecution. Some people made similar claims about his successor, Ehud Olmert, who went to trial and was convicted of corruption. I venture to suggest that with respect to the current Prime Minister, even with all the waves of criticism that surround him, we have not heard any accusations of self-interest. And I therefore conclude that we should accept his proposal. In fact, it seems to me that the current Prime Minister has a proven record of economic successes and the ability to keep our heads "above water" even when the world was in the throes of a serious economic crisis.

And, with respect to bypassing the monopoly laws and the possibility that the security issue is being used in vain: This would seem to be the only legal means for closing this deal. The regular readers of this column know my position about the "sanctity of the law" and "the rule of the Supreme Court." If there is a need to bypass the legal measures, then that is the way to go!

The Jewish Viewpoint

I am always of the opinion that "the Torah has something to say on every subject," and let the thirty-five volumes of Techumin published by Zomet Institute, be the proof of this approach. In volume 32 (5772 – 2012), we published an article by Rabbi Yaacov Ariel on the subject of gas royalties and taxes, in the wake of the recommendations of the Shushinsky Committee on that subject. In an appendix to the article we also brought articles by two editors of Techumin, Rabbi Dr. Itamar Warhaftig and Yitzchak Bart, a lawyer, who disagreed with Rabbi Ariel. In spite of this, my approach is that this is not a matter for a halachic ruling. There is also room for decisions that go beyond the halacha! (The discussion in Techumin centered on the question of breaching the contract, and it is not relevant for the current gas deal.)

I looked for a hint of oil exploration in this week's Torah portion, and I found the verse, "The blessings... of the eternal hills" [Bereishit 49:26]. This reminded me of the company named "Givat Olam" which is involved in producing oil in the area of Shoham, based on a mystical-economic vision which the Rebbe of Lubavitch passed on to his disciples, stemming from a similar verse in the blessing of Yosef in the portion Vezot Haberacha: "The abundance of the eternal hills" [Devarim 33:15]. The "abundance" is the petroleum of Givat Olam, which was located through the hidden meanings of Rashi on this verse!

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