On Monday, dozens of experts and activists addressed a packed auditorium at Tel Aviv University for a day-long NIF-sponsored and SHATIL-coordinated conference. Focusing on the unprecedented profits that will be realized from the discovery of an enormous natural gas field off the coast of Israel, the Conference was organized in collaboration with the faculty of Social Sciences of Tel Aviv University, the Associate for Distributive Justice and the Social and Economic Academy.
The conference was SHATIL and NIF’s opening bid in a public campaign that could change the face of Israeli society for generations.
"This find has far-reaching repercussions," said NIF Israel Director Rachel Liel. "Renewed distribution of the profits could work wonders for education, welfare and public health."
Speaker after speaker – including members of Knesset , economists, geologists and other experts – emphasized that Israel's natural resources belong to its people and that the public has the right to enjoy the vast benefits that can accrue from the dramatic find. Speakers noted that other developed countries have allocated an 80/20 proportional distribution of private profits from public resources, with the larger portion going to the public good. Only Israel, whose current royalty rate is far below that of the U.S., Norway and other energy producers, lags behind.
“The State is facing an historic opportunity to finance areas it had not been able to previously for budgetary reasons,” commented Michael Melchior, a former MK and founder of the new Civil Action Forum. “The excuses have run out, and it is time to implement reforms such as giving teachers fair and reasonable salaries and reducing class sizes.”
Geologist Yossi Langotsky, who played an important role in the find, made his first appearance at a civil society gathering. “The discoveries are intended to serve the State and its citizens,” Langotsky said. “It is unbelievable how far people whose priority is making money will go in trampling the rights of all Israeli citizens to enjoy the benefits of the State’s natural resources.”
The law governing natural gas royalties has remained unchanged – with efforts to do so repeatedly quashed by the gas companies lobbyists – since 1952. Representatives of the gas companies declined invitations to address the conference.
"The way it stands now, with the gas companies paying a 25% tax that will go down to 18%, is immoral, unethical and unacceptable," declared MK Sheli Yachimovich, who is promoting a new law that would benefit the public together with a broad coalition of MKs.
Rabbi Melchior stressed that Israel's age-old response to social needs – that we don’t have the money, that security concerns come first – is now moot.
"We now have the means to make Israel a country with no poverty," he said. "The excuses are finished. There is a new reality."
The can-do energy among the speakers and the standing-room-only crowd testifies to an optimism that the campaign to bridge Israel's social gaps and create a state with opportunities for all will win more and more supporters – and will succeed.