Knesset lawyer on Lebanon deal: Gov’t should get parliamentary go-ahead, but not required

Some decisions are even prohibited during election season to avoid the perception of abusing government power to impact election results.

Attorney Sagit Afik (photo credit: Courtesy)
Attorney Sagit Afik
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Knesset Legal Adviser Sagit Afik on Wednesday told the High Court of Justice that while it would be better for the government to seek full Knesset approval of the impending Lebanon maritime deal, it is not necessarily legally required.

To date, the government’s strategy has been to put the deal before the Knesset for debate for two weeks, but then to give a final vote of approval in late October, days before the November 1 election, by a simple cabinet vote.

Multiple NGOs, including Kohelet and Lavi, have filed petitions with the High Court to either block the deal or force a Knesset vote.

Afik said that deals with historic diplomatic consequences have usually been voted on by the Knesset.

Further, she said that the need to get the Knesset's approval was even greater now when the government itself is only transitional and carries with it less legitimacy for major moves.

 Ministers gather for a Knesset cabinet meeting on July 10th 2022.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Ministers gather for a Knesset cabinet meeting on July 10th 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Some decisions are even prohibited during election season to avoid the perception of abusing government power to impact election results.

Based on this, Afik urged the government to seek full Knesset approval, and not to suffice with the mere letter of the law, which would allow a cabinet vote and a two-week Knesset debate to ratify the deal.

However, Afik agreed with the government that the custom of seeking Knesset votes on such diplomatic deals has not been codified, is not universal, and, therefore, is not obligatory.

She added that the nature of the diplomatic issue at hand was at the heart of the government’s discretion to decide which way it should be approved.

She did not voice an opinion regarding the security and diplomatic issues themselves. The High Court is expected to hold a hearing on the issue Thursday afternoon.

High Court rejections

Last week, the High Court rejected, for the second time, a petition to compel freezing the government’s moves toward negotiating the maritime deal with Lebanon.

Both on October 3 and again on Wednesday, the court, with the latest decision written by conservative Justice David Mintz, rejected getting involved before the final decision-making point.

At first glance, the opponents of the deal still might have a chance to block the deal at the actual decision-making point.

The arguments by the petitioners are either that it cannot be approved without a referendum because it includes yielding territory – which under Israeli law may require a referendum – or stating that a transition government, such as the current one, cannot decide fateful historic questions for the country without Knesset approval.

Between these two arguments, the second one is likely to give the High Court greater pause.

Yes, there is some lack of clarity about the mix of territorial and economic rights being given up and possibly even about whether decades-old conventions regarding maritime lawfully anticipated the significance of natural gas fields far off countries’ coasts.

Supporters of the deal have noted that in 2011 Israel cut a maritime deal with Cyprus which did not go to a referendum.

What makes the argument about needing Knesset approval more serious is that Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara also recommended to the government that it seek Knesset approval.

Critics hope this would block the deal before the election since the coalition lacks 61 votes to approve anything at present.