Israel moving forward on a maritime deal with Lebanon is historic and an important agreement that will demarcate waters off the coast and enable energy exploration on both sides of the line.
Ostensibly, this will lead to security because it will mean that Lebanon won’t oppose Israel extracting gas from areas on the Israel side of the line.
"Were circumstances normal, we should have waited for a decision from the next government. But the circumstances require us to make a decision now – and yes, security challenges, as presented by heads of agencies, create a short and narrow window of opportunity."Alternate PM Naftali Bennett
However, it appears that Lebanon terrorist group Hezbollah, which has a big say in what happens in the country, can at any time decide to fire rockets over the line that has been agreed. This is a reminder of the complexities facing democracies in deals like this.
In a rehashing of the Iran deal, we are presented with a story where if we don’t reach a deal there could be war; but the reason for such a war is, ironically, due to the talk of the deal; and a change in government could end the deal and lead to conflict.
Meanwhile in Israel, the agreement will proceed, after approval by the cabinet, it will be presented to the Knesset for review. It will also be put before in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and then it will be returned to the cabinet for final ratification.
There are other processes in Lebanon that will play out. It is assumed that Hezbollah does not oppose the deal but this doesn’t mean that there won’t be more hurdles on the way to finalizing the agreement, or ratification; but that the processes in Israel and Lebanon are very different.
Benefits of the maritime agreement
For advocates of the agreement the benefits are clear. Lebanon and Hezbollah are now seemingly accepting a new reality where Israel exists. This is a relatively low bar because Israel is the stronger country and it doesn’t need Hezbollah’s approval.
There is a sense that interests are now overcoming the rhetoric of the past; meaning Lebanon needs cash and potential profit from gas exploration off the coast that could help stabilize the country. Critics would argue that any profit will go toward Hezbollah and that Lebanon seemed to get most of what it wants.
Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Wednesday, “Were circumstances normal, we should have waited for a decision from the next government. But the circumstances require us to make a decision now – and yes, security challenges, as presented by heads of agencies, create a short and narrow window of opportunity.”
Others disagree. Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu has been consistently critical of the deal, calling it an historic surrender. This means that the next government in Israel could walk away from the agreement or seek changes. The controversy also leads to questions about potential escalation, which Bennett appeared to hint at with his reference to a “narrow window.”
This is an interesting comment, considering that less than a week ago, Defense Minister Benny Gantz instructed the IDF to be on alert in case of escalation in the North. Was Israel put in a position of either making a deal or having a conflict? Bennett said: “I saw value in reaching a deal; but not at any cost, and certainly not under threat.” If Israel wasn’t under threat, it’s not clear why the IDF had to be on alert for possible conflict days before the agreement was concluded.
The dispute in Israeli politics is a reminder of the rhetoric in the US before the Iran deal. During the lead-up to the deal there was pressure on the Obama administration to have Congressional review and there were discussions whether the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran deal, constituted a treaty, requiring it to be sent to the Senate.
At the time, in early 2015, then vice-president Joe Biden said, “around the world, America’s influence depends on its ability to honor its commitments.” He warned that Republican critics that “the vast majority of our international commitments take effect without Congressional approval.”
Obama eventually secured enough support in the US Senate to block any kind of challenge to the Iran deal but it didn’t last long and in May 2018 the Trump administration withdrew from the agreement. A year later, in May 2019, Iranian threats to US troops in Iraq increased, a US drone was downed; ships were attacked with mines in the Gulf, US bases were attacked with rockets and by January 2020 the US had carried out air strikes killed IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani.
The Biden administration has considered re-entering the deal and European countries, along with Russia, have been in talks with Iran. But Iran has changed tactics as well; and there is a lot of water under the bridge; with new US sanctions on the IRGC and Russia’s war in Ukraine. Iran has also expanded its drone and missile program, threatening more of the region.
Will the Israel-Lebanon maritime deal be a historic shift and be cemented by the next government, or is it heading for rough waters ahead?
One of the issues that democracies face in making deals like this is that adversaries can use timetables; such as elections or domestic politics, to pressure the government. Iran exploited divisions in the US; pushing rhetoric about the US needing to help “moderates” and fearmongering about another “war” or “endless war” in the Middle East; and even spreading anti-Israel messages about how Israel was driving the US toward a new conflict in the region.
Hezbollah also appeared to use rhetoric in the lead-up to the deal. Iran knows how to manufacture fake causes in the region, such as Hezbollah “resisting” Israel by fighting over the disputed Har Dov area on the border.
As such, Israel always risks Hezbollah conjuring up some acres of water off the coast that it now needs to “resist” and threaten Israel for not keeping up its part in the deal. In short, the deal could mean peace and security, but it can become an excuse for conflict. If the next government rips up the agreement, Iran and Hezbollah can claim that Israel is “violating” Lebanon’s maritime economic zone, necessitating “resistance.”
Iran did this with the Iran deal. Under the deal, Iran wasn’t supposed to be stockpiling enriched uranium, but when the US withdrew this gave Iran an excuse to enrich uranium; whereas before 2015 it didn’t have an excuse as to why it was enriching.
Now, Iran says it is enriching to get the US back to the deal, basically giving Iran a right to move towards a nuclear weapon under the guise of wanting the deal back. This is the problem democracies like Israel and the US face; deals can bring peace, but they can also be an excuse for conflict.