Maritime border deal signing ceremony to be held Thursday - Hochstein

Cabinet set to vote for Lebanon maritime deal this week.

 An Israeli Navy missile ship patrols the waters near the Karish gas rig. (photo credit: IDF)
An Israeli Navy missile ship patrols the waters near the Karish gas rig.
(photo credit: IDF)

The ceremony for the Israel-Lebanon maritime border deal will be held on Thursday, US mediator Amos Hochstein said on Sunday evening.

The cabinet is expected to authorize the maritime border deal with Lebanon on Thursday, after the High Court of Justice rejected petitions seeking to block it.

The court blocked multiple petitions on Sunday, from two NGOs - Kohelet and Lavi - and Religious Zionist MK Itamar Ben-Gvir.

The cabinet vote was set for two weeks after the agreement was submitted to the Knesset for review, but not a vote, which was among the reasons the petitioners cited for stopping the agreement. The agreement is expected to be approved by an overwhelming majority of ministers.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that “the High Court ruling will allow us to advance the important agreement on the maritime border with Lebanon in the coming days. That the agreement was completed close to the elections was not desirable - but necessary. This is a good and correct agreement that has positive security, political and economic implications for the entire region.”

A signing ceremony at UN Interim Force in Lebanon headquarters in Nakoura, on the Israel-Lebanon border, is expected to take place soon after, according to Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar. The Israeli and Lebanese delegations will be in separate rooms, because Beirut declined to recognize Israel in the framework of the agreement.

 Prime Minister Yair Lapid flies over the Karish gas rig. (credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO) Prime Minister Yair Lapid flies over the Karish gas rig. (credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)

The US-mediated agreement has Israel conceding the entire triangle of economic waters in the Mediterranean Sea that was in dispute with Lebanon, in exchange for a “permanent and equitable resolution regarding its maritime dispute.” A line of buoys Israel set up after withdrawing from southern Lebanon in 2000, which extends from the land border 5 km. into the sea, will be considered part of the “status quo” between countries, whose border is not internationally recognized.

Israel will also receive a payout for the 17% of the Kana gas field that extends into its economic waters; the rest of the reservoir is in the disputed area and Lebanese waters. The payment will be worked out in a separate deal with French drilling firm TotalEnergies.

On Thursday, High Court President Esther Hayut, Justice Uzi Vogelman and Justice Noam Sohlberg heard arguments on the issue, which needed to be resolved before Election Day set on November 1.

Petitions against Lebanon maritime deal

In one of the most dramatic points of the hearing, Ben-Gvir alleged that negotiations between Israel and Lebanon had blown up and were frozen, restarting only because of election season.

Pressed on the issue by Hayut about whether he had proof of this, Ben-Gvir demurred, but then lashed out at IDF intelligence and the Foreign Ministry.

Anticipating that the justices would be hearing from IDF Intelligence Chief Aharon Haliva in a closed classified session, he urged Hayut to interrogate him over whether negotiations only restarted around the same time as election season kicked into high gear.

If true, this could have supported Ben Gvir’s claim that the election was a key motivation for nailing down the deal now, as opposed to just national security.

On the flip side, many commentators have said that the timing was as much connected to ongoing crises in Lebanon itself and the pending resignation of President Michel President Michel Aoun at at the end of the month, after which Lebanon will not have a president and will not be able to approve a deal at a later date. 

Ben-Gvir did face some notable pushback from Sohlberg about whether the court was the right party to intervene, despite both of them being considered part of the country’s right wing on legal issues.

Sohlberg said that Ben Gvir could have tried to force a vote in the Knesset by seeking a large number of signatures.

Kohelet lawyer Ariel Ehrlich continued to push the argument that the deal requires a referendum based on the idea that Israel will be ceding some of its territorial waters and there is a law requiring a referendum for ceding sovereign territory.

However, the justices indicated to Ehrlich that the fact that the territory itself was disputed, that the IDF has rarely acted there and that claims over the territory were mainly made as a bargaining chip would shoot down his argument.

Lavi’s Yitzhak Baum said he basically agreed with the government’s lawyers that the Knesset should hold a vote on the issue – only that the government lawyers saw this vote as preferable, whereas he considered it obligatory.

Yet, the justices intervened with counterexamples to the idea that a Knesset vote was obligatory, such as a deal made with Cyprus without Knesset approval.

Baum suggested Cyprus was different because it had not included a war, as with Lebanon.

Both at the hearing and on Wednesday, the Knesset Legal Adviser told the High Court that while it would have been better for the government to seek full Knesset approval of the impending Lebanon maritime deal, it is not 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.

Historic diplomatic consequences

Both the Knesset lawyers and the Attorney-General lawyers said that deals with historic diplomatic consequences have usually been voted on by the Knesset.

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

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

Based on all of the above, they 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, they 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.

Moreover, they said 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.