Lapid: Lebanon agreement staves off war with Hezbollah

Lapid said the deal gives the best response to our security needs, and quoted IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, who said in the cabinet meeting that it “does not preserve our security, it improves it.

 Prime Minister Yair Lapid at a briefing, August 28, 2022.  (photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)
Prime Minister Yair Lapid at a briefing, August 28, 2022.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)

The maritime boundary agreement between Israel and Lebanon makes war with Hezbollah less likely, Prime Minister Yair Lapid said soon after the cabinet gave its initial approval to the agreement.

The agreement “staves off war,” Lapid said in a press conference. “Israel is not afraid of Hezbollah; the IDF is stronger than any terrorist organization. At the same time, if we can avoid a war, it is the job of any responsible government to do so.”

“Instead of war, the agreement gives Israeli citizens billions and energy security for the coming years,” he stated.

Israel made clear to Lebanon that it will not delay its production at the Karish Reservoir, which Hezbollah threatened though it is in Israeli waters that were not in the area in dispute. Israel will not hesitate to use force to defend it, the prime minister stated.

Lapid said the deal “gives the best response to our security needs,” and quoted IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, who said in the cabinet meeting that it “does not preserve our security, it improves it.”

 Israel's Security Council meets to discuss Lebanon maritime border deal, October 12, 2022 (credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO) Israel's Security Council meets to discuss Lebanon maritime border deal, October 12, 2022 (credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)

Lapid also pushed back against criticism from the opposition, calling it “poisonous lying propaganda... meant for political means from people who never saw” the agreement. The premier said he plans to brief the heads of all opposition parties on the details of the agreement.

Asked why the agreement had to be completed so close to the November 1 election, Lapid pointed out that the US had been mediating between Israel and Lebanon for over a year, while the election was called in June.

Time crunch

In addition, Lapid said that it was important to complete the deal before Lebanese President Michel Aoun left office on October 31, otherwise it would take “months or even years before the Shi’ite, Sunni and Christian leaders of Lebanon could sign this agreement together.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz pointed out that Hezbollah is backed by Iran and has tens of thousands of missiles.

“I wish to speak today as someone who began most of his military service for the State of Israel in Lebanon over 40 years ago, as someone who knows the security reality on the ground, the costs of war, and if I may also say – the Lebanese people,” Gantz said. “The agreement we discuss today is important and just, and it serves the deepest interests of the State of Israel.”

Gantz said that the agreement guarantees Israel’s freedom of action off the coast and that Israel “did not give up one millimeter that is critical to our security.”

The Kana Reservoir 

Energy Minister Karin Elharrar said that there is no other situation in the world in which countries without diplomatic relations have an agreement regarding the development of a gas reservoir, such that “without the agreement, the chance of developing [Kana] was zero.”

The Kana Reservoir crosses from Lebanese waters, – across the area in dispute which will go to Lebanon in the deal – and into Israeli waters.

The cabinet approved the Lebanon maritime boundary agreement in an early vote and brought it to the Knesset for review, not a vote.

Classified aspects of the deal will be brought before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, in a closed-door meeting.

In fourteen days – less than a week before the election – it will be brought back to the cabinet for final ratification, pending the attorney-general’s approval throughout.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked voted against the proposal and Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel abstained, arguing that it needed to be brought to a vote in the Knesset. The remaining ministers voted for the agreement.

The cabinet decision not to put the agreement to a vote in the Knesset countered Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara’s recommendation, though she said a vote was not legally required.

National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata sought to assuage concerns over Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah, a party in the Lebanese government, benefiting from the deal.

“The Government of Lebanon has been under the threat of sanctions if any of its income goes to Hezbollah, and therefore has not allowed it to happen for years,” Hulata argued in a press briefing. “This agreement is not different from others that Lebanon has signed; funds will not go to Hezbollah.”

Israel is expected to receive a letter of guarantees from the US that, in addition to committing the US to the details of the agreement, would say that the US will make sure Lebanon’s income from the reservoir will not reach Hezbollah in accordance with US sanctions.

Hulata said the agreement “does not match Iran’s interests in Lebanon” in that it “reduces Lebanon’s reliance on Hezbollah.”

“I think it’s in Israel’s interest,” he said. “With the Government of Lebanon, unlike Hezbollah, this is not a zero-sum game.”

Hulata said Israel is interested in stabilizing Lebanon and its economy. Strategic matters such as that, as well as strengthening Israel’s energy independence, were the priority for Israel in the negotiation, followed by security issues and economic benefit. Jerusalem also views the deal as an opening for future agreements with Lebanon.

Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett broke his silence about the agreement following the Security Cabinet meeting, saying “there is no place for victory celebrations nor for crying as if it were a catastrophe. The agreement is not a historic diplomatic victory, but it is not a terrible surrender either. It’s a necessary arrangement due to the circumstances, with problematic timing.”

Bennett explained that, as prime minister, he favored negotiating to create a situation where Lebanon will have a gas rig near Israel and thus will be motivated to dissuade Hezbollah from attacking the Israeli rig.

The final deal is not what Bennett said he hoped it would be, nor is he comfortable with the timing so close to an election.

However, he said, the security establishment convinced him that “the circumstances require a decision now, because the security challenges... create a narrow and