Lebanon maritime deal goes to Knesset without vote

“Funds from the agreement will not go to Hezbollah,” National Security Adviser emphasizes.

 PRIME MINISTER Yair Lapid sits alongside Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at last Sunday’s cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. After Lapid’s speech to the UN, Bennett was quick to declare that there is no point in reviving the idea of a Palestinian state (photo credit: MAYA ALLERUZZO/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Yair Lapid sits alongside Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at last Sunday’s cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. After Lapid’s speech to the UN, Bennett was quick to declare that there is no point in reviving the idea of a Palestinian state

The cabinet approved the Lebanon maritime boundary agreement in an early vote and Prime Minister Yair Lapid's proposal to bring it to the Knesset floor for review, but not for a vote on Wednesday.

After the government submits the agreement to the Knesset floor, it will be presented in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, most of whose meetings are classified.

In fourteen days, it will be brought back to the cabinet for final ratification, pending the Attorney-General's approval throughout.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked voted against and Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel abstained from the proposal, arguing that it needed to be voted on in the Knesset.

The proposal not to put the agreement up for a vote in the Knesset countered Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara's recommendation, though she said a vote was not legally required.

Earlier, the Security Cabinet approved a statement that “there is importance and urgency in reaching a maritime agreement between Israel and Lebanon at this time. Security Cabinet members express support for promoting the authorization process in the cabinet,” a statement from the Security Cabinet means.

National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata sought to assuage concerns over the 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. “This agreement is not different from others that Lebanon has signed; funds will not go to Hezbollah.”

US to send a letter to Israel promising to keep Hezbollah from gaining an income

Israel is expected to receive a letter of guarantee from the US that, in addition to committing 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 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 benefits. Jerusalem also views the deal as an opening for future agreements with Lebanon.

The text of the US-mediated agreement between Israel and Lebanon, describing a "permanent and equitable resolution regarding its maritime dispute," came to light on Wednesday, as Israeli cabinet ministers were set to discuss and vote on it.

"The United States...understands [Lebanon/Israel] is prepared to establish its permanent maritime boundary, and conclude a permanent and equitable resolution regarding its maritime dispute with [Israel/Lebanon]," the agreement reads.

Letters exchanges between Israel and Lebanon through US

The agreement comes in the form of letter exchanges between the US and Lebanon and the US and Israel, as well as letters from Lebanon and Israel to the UN, depositing the maritime boundary agreement, including coordinates. The parties agreed not to submit further charts or coordinates to the UN.

Lebanon refuses to recognize Israel, and as such will not sign an agreement directly with the Jewish State. This also impacts the wording of the agreement, such that Lebanon is recognizing the extent of its own economic waters, not where Israel begin.

At the same time, the agreement states that representatives of Israel and Lebanon plan to meet at Naquora, on the border between the countries, to finalize the agreement "in the near future."

The coordinates listed in the agreement would mean that the entire triangle of the Mediterranean Sea in dispute between Lebanon and Israel would be considered Lebanese economic waters, with the southern boundary known as “line 23.”

The agreement specifically states that the "status quo" in terms of the lack of a recognized land border between Israel and Lebanon, remains the same, including territorial waters near the shore "including along and as defined by the current buoy line."

The "buoy line" is a physical obstacle in the Mediterranean Sea extending out 5 km. from the Israel-Lebanon border, but not the full extent of its territorial waters. In that area, close to the shore, the differences between Israeli and Lebanese demands were a matter of tens of meters, and the final two of the 10 buoys in a row were already placed along line 23 after the IDF withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000.

The agreement addresses the fact that there is an unknown quantity of natural gas in the Kana Field, which extends from Lebanese waters, across the disputed area - which will become Lebanon's - and into Israel.

Lebanon must license "one or more reputable, international corporations that are not subject to international sanctions...and that are not Israeli or Lebanese corporations" to develop Kana. TotalEnergies, which is French, currently holds the license and meets that criteria, but any successors would have to, as well.

Exploration of the reservoir can begin after the agreement enters into force, and Israel will not object to "reasonable and necessary activities," including drilling immediately south of the maritime boundary line, as long as Israel is notified in advance.

"Israel will be remunerated by the Block 9 Operator [TotalEnergies] for its rights to any potential deposits in the Prospect [Kana] and to that end, Israel and the Block 9 Operator will sign a financial agreement prior to [its]...final investment decision," the agreement states.

Energy Ministry Director-General Lior Schillat said that, while the agreement between Israel and Total has yet to be finalized, Israel will be “selling its gas in the reservoir for 100% of its price, as if it was developing [the field] itself.”

The agreement will be for Total to buy out Israel’s portion of Kana, which is about 17% and the amount will be calculated after the French energy company explores the reservoir and evaluates it, Schillat explained. The first payment must be made before any development. In addition, the agreement will allow for adjustments to the amount Israel receives, commensurate with how much gas is actually extracted.

The agreement also states that "Lebanon is not responsible for, or party to, any arrangement between the Block 9 Operator and Israel."

If other natural resources are found in the disputed area and one party exploiting it would deplete the other party's deposit of that resource, the US will mediate "with a view to reaching an understanding on the allocation of rights."

Any dispute on the interpretation or implementation of the agreement is to be facilitated by the US.

The agreement does not address any kind of enforcement mechanism or assurances in light of Lebanon’s extreme government instability or that Hezbollah, the Iran-backed terrorist group that is part of the Lebanese government, will not sabotage the deal.

In fact, when asked if Lebanon gave any guarantees that Hezbollah will not render the deal irrelevant, a senior US official said on Tuesday night that "US mediation did not include discussions with Hezbollah.  This is with the sovereign leadership of Lebanon...and I have every assurance that the government of Lebanon intends to keep its end of this agreement, as I have on the Israeli side."

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 talk Hezbollah down from attacking the Israeli side.

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 short window for a decision."