Lebanon deal: Even 74 years later, Israel still trying to unite Middle East

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: The rise of debates regarding the maritime agreement with Lebanon is nothing new.

 PRIME MINISTER Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Energy Minister Karin Elharrar hold a press conference on the maritime border deal with Lebanon, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on Wednesday.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Energy Minister Karin Elharrar hold a press conference on the maritime border deal with Lebanon, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on Wednesday.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

The volume of this week’s domestic debate regarding the gas-sharing maritime agreement with Lebanon is nothing new.

In fact, over the years, no matter which country in our region Israel was interacting with, there were repeatedly opponents to any diplomatic compromise. There have always been those who believed Israel was making a mistake, being duped, being coerced to give up too much, or not properly defending its national interests.

For some, conveniently “forgetting” the thousands of young men and women (on all sides) who gave up their lives in those wars and the costs of occupation and lack of international recognition, Israel’s victories in war, especially the 1967 Six Day War, offer somehow an alternative to diplomacy.

Today, not many Israelis would challenge the strategic value of peace with Egypt, Jordan or the Gulf states, and very few think we would be better off with Israeli soldiers or civilians in the heart of the Gaza Strip, even as progress or a resolution in the peace process with our Palestinian neighbors has remained elusive.

Two thousand years of running from inquisitions, pogroms and attempted genocides perhaps made the Jewish people innately defensive. The horrors of the Holocaust left such a strong impact on Jews around the world and in Israel that it influences nearly everything, even almost 80 years since the end of the Second World War.

 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)

It would be easy to conclude that there is no longer any room for compromise, coexistence or trust of former enemies. And there are still people who feel that way, after a seemingly unending cycle of wars and terrorism.

74 years after Israel's independence, there is still a lot of fighting

Nevertheless, Israel’s Declaration of Independence is crystal clear on the aspiration to make peace. Only three years after the ending of the Shoah and in the first moments of the War of Independence, just after appealing to Israel’s Arab population, it calls out to Israel’s neighbors: “We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.

AND IN the 74 years since, there have been, in fits and starts, opportunities for Israel to take on that vision through diplomacy, negotiation and compromise. It has taken on some and passed over others. And nearly every time it went forward, there was pushback, doubt and criticism from Israel’s political Right. There was at times violence and terrorism. But again and again, Israel has taken steps toward integration in the Middle East.

In the 1970s, after a fourth bloody war (and possibly a missed opportunity at diplomacy just before the Yom Kippur War), Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s leader, offered his hand in peace, and prime minister Menachem Begin welcomed him to Israel and eventually returned every last bit of Sinai as part of a peace agreement that has now lasted significantly longer than the state of war that once existed between the sides.

There was real opposition in Israel at the time. The Washington Post quoted a member of Begin’s own Likud Party as shouting: “I do not trust you. I do not trust your path... Why was it necessary to give in to this pressure?” The peace treaty was ratified by a large majority, 95 votes in favor, but still, 18 members of the Knesset voted against the agreement.

In the many years that have passed, the agreement has held. It remained despite two Gulf wars, the Arab Spring in Egypt and Israeli conflicts in Lebanon and with the Palestinians. It has even been amended, as trust has grown between Israel and Egypt. For example, as both sides have grown to appreciate their shared interest in preventing terrorist cells from growing in Sinai, Israel agreed to significantly increase the number of Egyptian forces permitted in that region.

Israel and Egypt have long bought and sold gas to each other, and earlier this year signed a tripartite agreement with the European Union to export gas from the region to Europe. Israel has even spoken out in the United States for Egypt and the deepening of foreign aid and international support for its former enemy.

These debates repeated themselves and deepened in the early 1990s during the Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Famously, secret talks in Norway led to mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization and the iconic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in September 1993. This time, as opposed to the Egyptian peace, Israel was led by a center-left coalition, and the voices from the opposition from the Right were loud, and some grew aggressive.

Rise of terror attacks intensifies debates

Debates intensified in the wake of terrorist attacks, and huge rallies were held by all sides, with each security or diplomatic development. The use of violent words like “traitor” and the Talmudic expressions “moser” (one who turns in a Jew to the authorities) and “rodef” (a criminal who may/must be stopped) were used in public in new and scary ways by some politicians and religious leaders. The ultimate act of protest reached its most extreme point with the horrific assassination of prime minister Rabin by an Israeli far-right activist opposed to the peace process.

Another heated debate occurred in the early 2000s when prime minister Ariel Sharon’s government decided to unilaterally withdraw the IDF and some 7,000 civilian settlers from Gaza. Once again, objections were raised by Israel’s rightist opposition. A majority of Knesset members eventually approved over 45 objections.

The debates over making peace with the Palestinians remain vibrant today, as seen last month when Prime Minister Yair Lapid even mentioned the idea of a two-state solution at the United Nations General Assembly. It is interesting that the framework of the Palestinian Authority and cooperation in a range of civil and security areas remain intact and have never been fully stopped.

In the early 1990s, and certainly connected to a spirit of optimism and peacemaking, a peace agreement with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was signed. There was much less domestic objection to this agreement, which was approved in the Knesset by a large majority (the three Moledet Party MKs voted against it, and five Likud MKs, including Ariel Sharon, and one member of the National Religious Party abstained), similar to the peace deal with Egypt. Other similarities are that the deal included transfer of territories (much less than with Egypt), and the peace, while often chilly, has held firm for nearly 30 years. Last year, the sides signed an agreement, brokered by the UAE, to trade more water to Jordan in exchange for electricity to southern Israel.

The more recent Abraham Accords, peace agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and a normalization agreement with Morocco, have been less divisive, as all are geographically far from Israel, and no territorial compromise was needed. Nevertheless, even those were not unanimous votes in Knesset. The UAE ratification vote had 13 objectors, and the Bahrain agreement had 14 objectors, this time from the Arab Joint List, who feared that these agreements would serve to bypass any peace process with the Palestinians.

There was also a change of policy by Israel regarding the sale of fighter jets by the United States to the UAE, which, seemingly overnight, changed from objecting to lobbying for that sale. Even only two years later, these deals seem massively successful and positive in a wide range of spheres for all sides.

IT IS far too early to make a judgment on how the still unsigned Lebanese gas deal will be resolved or perceived in years to come. It is different, of course, in that it is not a peace agreement and does not include land but rights to water, and perhaps more importantly, what is under the water.

In that way, it is perhaps similar to economic agreements that deepened Israel’s ties with Jordan and Egypt.

Interestingly, its path is following earlier experiences – agreements that were sharply debated but generally accepted and lauded over time, widening Israel’s relations in the Middle East and beyond.

The writer, a retired diplomat, is a former ambassador of Israel to Azerbaijan and to South Africa and also was director of the Foreign Ministry’s Department of International Law.