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Israel set for major gas deal with US company Noble Energy after minister resigns

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is to approve a controversial gas deal after the country's economy minister, who opposed the move, resigned. The multibillion contract has been stalled over fears of a monopoly.

Minister Arieh Deri resigned his post, clearing the way for the deal with the US company Noble Energy on exploiting Israeli gas fields, a statement from the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday.

"Minister Deri announced to me his intention to quit. In order to proceed with the agreement, the (economic) ministry will be transferred to me and I will give the green light," Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu, who is already acting foreign minister, added that gas would be "the number one engine for economic growth in Israel for the coming years."

Warnings of monopoly

Israel discovered two large offshore gas fields in recent years, raising hopes of more energy independence for the resource-poor country.

Noble Energy with Israeli partner Delek already control the smaller Tamar field, discovered in 2009. The Leviathan, discovered in 2010, has been hit by a series of delays.

Last year, Israel's antitrust authority raised objections to a major gas deal, warning that it would give Delek and Noble Energy an effective monopoly.

The outgoing economy minister had the authority to overrule the decision, but refused to do so.

Clearing the way for business

Leviathan is more than twice the size of Tamar, reportedly holding some 18.9 trillion cubic feet (535 billion cubic meters, or bcm) of natural gas, along with 34.1 million barrels of condensate.

Noble Energy has threatened to take the government to court over the delay.

With the reins of the economy ministry passing to Netanyahu, the prime minister is now able to press on with the move.

His critics, however, accuse him of pushing a bad deal for the country and seeking to avoid democratic checks and balances.

Neighboring Egypt has recently discovered another large gas field in the Mediterranean, raising concerns that Israel might fall behind in gas production.

dj/jm (AP, AFP)

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