Lebanon: here we go again - opinion

The Media Line takes a deep dive into Israel and Lebanon's newest maritime deal.

 Rosh Hanikra, at the border between Israel and Lebanon, on October 14, 2022 (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
Rosh Hanikra, at the border between Israel and Lebanon, on October 14, 2022
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

OPINION - A government negotiates an agreement with another government. The opposition denounces the accord in apocalyptic terms. The government reports that the deal is the best one that could have been achieved, it protects the national interests, and might even lead to further agreements.

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Does this sound like the debate over the draft agreement Israel has worked out with Lebanon over the exclusive economic zones off their coasts and natural gas rights? Not at all.

It’s the US-led agreement to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

As you’ll no doubt recall, the US opposition came to power and canceled the Iran deal. Israel’s opposition is threatening, promising, to do the same with the Lebanon agreement.

 RIME MINISTER Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Energy Minister Karin Elharrar attend a news conference on the maritime agreement with Lebanon, at the Prime Minister’s Office, last week.  (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) RIME MINISTER Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Energy Minister Karin Elharrar attend a news conference on the maritime agreement with Lebanon, at the Prime Minister’s Office, last week. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

We’ll look at the Israel-Lebanon accord in a moment, but for now it’s worth repeating that the Iran agreement was working well until the Americans scrapped it. Then and only then did Iran ramp up its nuclear weapons program.

  • The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the Iran nuclear accord, was signed in 2015.
  • When the US withdrew from the deal in 2018, Iran had about 200 kilograms of low-level enriched uranium, near the maximum allowed by the accord.
  • Today Iran has at least 1,200 kilograms of enriched uranium, and some of it is close to weapons-ready. That’s the result of the US canceling its deal and reimposing sanctions.

Objections to the Iran deal were significant and substantive. It did not stop Iran from meddling in the affairs of its neighbors and spreading terrorism around the region. It did not limit heavy water reactors. It did not control Iran’s development of long-range missiles.

So, depending on your definition, it was a bad deal. The US did not get everything it wanted.

By that definition, every deal is a bad deal, because the meaning of “deal” is that no one gets everything they wanted. The choice at that point is to keep negotiating or pull the plug. We’ll never know what the outcome of further negotiations with Iran might have been, but we do know the consequences of pulling the plug.

So now let’s look at the Lebanon deal. Israel got recognition from a neighboring country, not of its existence, but of a murky border in the deep blue sea. The idea is that this will allow Israel and Lebanon to develop their underwater natural gas fields independently, without interference from each other.

In exchange for that, Israel gave up – well, what? Claims to a section of seafloor that may or may not hide another natural gas field? A section of the sea that doesn’t belong to anyone but is considered “economic waters” by whoever claims it – in this case, Israel?

Is that justification for crying gevalt, using terms like traitorous, sellout, appeasing terrorists, and so on? Is any of this comparable, even fractionally, to the objections to the Iran accord, where we’re dealing with life-and-death issues like mushroom clouds? Of course not.

A first accord does not have to be the last one. That would have applied to Iran – the current talks are a lame attempt to fix the damage, not to move forward – and now there’s Lebanon.

Lebanon is officially at war with Israel, though truth be told, it’s more at war with itself than with anyone else these days. The Iran-backed terrorist Hizbullah is the main power there, by default – because Lebanon’s squabbling communities just can’t get along.

Hizbullah is far from loved in Lebanon. Its image took a beating in 2006, the last time it picked a fight with Israel and reaped mass destruction of its neighborhoods in southern Beirut, and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has not appeared in public for 16 (!) years as a result.

It lost many more points when an enormous explosion leveled much of Beirut’s Mediterranean port in August 2020. Hizbullah has so far thwarted investigations, but there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind that the Iran-backed terror group is the one that was storing huge amounts of explosive material in the warehouse that erupted.

It’s commonly reported that Hizbullah has 130,000 rockets and missiles pointed at Israel, a constant threat. One purported benefit of the new agreement is to remove or at least delay the threat of those missiles being launched.

Now let’s get real.

The Israel of 2022 is not the small, weak, threatened Jewish enclave of 1960. Through its military might and its burgeoning diplomatic relations in the region, it can handle the threats of Hizbullah. A war would be costly, deadly, painful – but not existential, at least not for Israel. Those days are over. Someone should write a book about that. Oh, wait. I did, in Why Are We Still Afraid?

So at least, the accord with Lebanon gives Israel a green light to pump gas from one of its fields in the Mediterranean. At most, it gives Lebanon hope of some economic benefits, a non-Iran lifeline, and a vision of a better future.

 Fishermen catch fish, in Naqoura, near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon, October 11, 2022.  (credit: REUTERS/AZIZ TAHER) Fishermen catch fish, in Naqoura, near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon, October 11, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AZIZ TAHER)

Or not. The whole thing might just go up in smoke, the way Israel’s “peace treaty” with Lebanon, imposed at the end of a bayonet, did in 1983.

Whether this is worth the risk is up to you. But keep in mind that canceling the “horrible” Iran deal has led to the opposite of what its opponents wanted.

Mark Lavie has been covering the Middle East for major news outlets since 1972. His second book, Why Are We Still Afraid?, which follows his five-decade career and comes to a surprising conclusion, is available on Amazon.