Israel's Supreme Court began hearings Wednesday on a contentious natural gas deal aimed at tapping major reserves in the Mediterranean that could lead to important shifts in the region's energy supplies.
The deal between the Israeli government and a consortium including US firm Noble Energy, pushed forward by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, has been criticized by those who say it overly favors the companies involved.
Netanyahu indicated that he intends to take part in the Supreme Court hearing and defend the gas deal.
The court was full as judges began hearing five challenges to the complex accord that would lead to the development of the Leviathan field in the Mediterranean, described as one of the biggest recent natural gas discoveries.
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.
Netanyahu signed a new deal on December 17, with the companies having agreed to sell some of their other assets as part of the accord.
To sidestep anti-trust objections, Netanyahu used an obscure clause allowing the deal to be pushed through by the economy minister - a portfolio he now holds.
Previous Economy Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas) resigned in November after refusing to overrule the anti-trust authorities and has since been named interior minister, a post he previously abused and spent time in jail on corruption charges.
Israel has been trying to extract offshore gas since the discovery of the Tamar and Leviathan fields in 2009 and 2010. Production has begun in Tamar, but the far larger Leviathan has been hit by a series of delays.
The size of the Leviathan field is estimated at 18.9 trillion cubic feet (535 billion cubic meters, or bcm) of natural gas, along with 34.1 million barrels of condensate.
Noble and Delek also control the Tamar field, which holds 250 bcm of natural gas, and lies 80 kilometers (40 nautical miles) west of the Israeli port of Haifa.
The discoveries were major boosts to Israel's efforts toward energy independence.
Israel also intends to export gas from Leviathan to other countries in the region, which could grant the state strategic leverage. Greece and Cyprus have expressed interest in cooperating with Israel on a gas pipeline.
Supreme Court approval of the deal would allow the consortium to move forward on contracts for gas sales, which could unlock crucial financing needed to develop Leviathan.
AFP contributed to this report.