The Lebanese government collapsing is no reason to rush a deal - opinion

The Lebanon maritime border deal is bad for Israel strategically and financially.

 SHORTLY AFTER Yair Lapid became caretaker prime minister, Hezbollah sent UAVs toward Israel’s gas platforms, threatening to attack production weeks before the election. Suddenly, Lapid agreed to accept a deal, says the writer.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
SHORTLY AFTER Yair Lapid became caretaker prime minister, Hezbollah sent UAVs toward Israel’s gas platforms, threatening to attack production weeks before the election. Suddenly, Lapid agreed to accept a deal, says the writer.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Now that the Lebanon maritime boundary deal has finally been made public – only as the cabinet actually voted to accept it – its merits can be fully assessed. It turns out that the claims made about its benefits are simply not reflected in the text of the agreement, which incurs costs to Israel well beyond what the public had been prepared for. 

The agreement is bad for Israel strategically and financially. In order to pass it, the lame-duck government is rushing it through weeks before an election in ways that are constitutionally and politically illegitimate. Let’s take the issues one at a time.

The issues of the agreement

First, the strategic costs of the agreement. Negotiations toward a compromise between the maritime boundary declared by Israel (Line 1) and by Lebanon (Line 23) have been ongoing for years. Consistent with international treaties, prior mediators took “equitable” approaches, splitting the disputed territory between the parties. According to reliable reports, as recently as a few months ago, the proposals on the table involved Israel retaining roughly 35% of the disputed area.

Shortly after Yair Lapid became caretaker prime minister – with a four-month term in office – Hezbollah sent some UAVs toward Israel’s gas platforms, threatening to attack Israel’s production weeks before the election. Suddenly, Lapid agreed to accept a deal based on Israel getting 0% of the disputed territory.

 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)

This complete collapse is understood by our enemies – and Hezbollah, in particular – as a weakness that will invite further threats. The complete abandonment of Israel’s territorial claim – claims that were not seen as illegitimate by the international community – will weaken Israel’s position in other negotiations. Hezbollah, which through its proxy (the Lebanese government) has been a full participant in the negotiations, is not bound by the agreements.

Proponents of the agreement claimed it would “anchor in international law” the critical security boundary demarcated by Israel five km. westward into the sea from the land boundary at Rosh Hanikra (the “buoy line”). With the agreement published, it is clear that the buoy line is not being recognized as the international boundary, but rather merely as a de facto situation subject to further dispute. But since, as part of the agreement, Israel has renounced claims to all waters north of Line 23, its claim to the buoy line has been substantially weakened.

American guarantees are being spun as a strategic advantage of the deal. But such guarantees severely limit Israeli independence in responding to threats to its security and financial interests and harm Israel’s relationship with the United States by positioning it as a protectorate rather than an asset. Moreover, American guarantees are only as binding as the administration wants them to be (e.g. Obama’s discarding Bush’s promises made in exchange for the Gaza disengagement).

The economic costs of the deal are obvious. Israel has renounced economic claims to natural resources north of Line 23, including the potentially huge Kana-Tzidon gas fields. In addition, Israel has renounced its rights to exploit potential reserves in undisputed Israeli waters that straddle Line 23. Lebanon is not symmetrically limited.

Defenders of the deal claim that Israel will receive some percentage of revenues from the Kana-Tzidon fields. In fact, the deal includes no such provision. It does not specify what percentage Israel will receive, from whom, under what terms and conditions, or with what recourse. In fact, it does not specify which consortium will extract the gas or even the nationalities of the members of the consortium.

Tellingly, Lebanon insisted on removing a provision that these nationalities do not include those “sanctioned by the United States,” replacing it with those “sanctioned internationally.” This means the possibility of Iranian presence right off Israel’s coast is deliberately preserved.

Defenders of the deal have further argued that strengthening Lebanon economically is an Israeli interest, since it will weaken their relationship with Iran and will “give them something to lose.” 

This view is deeply rooted in the naïve belief that Lebanon’s connection to Iran is solely financial rather than strategic and ideological. It is also rooted in the foolish notion that Israel can credibly threaten an internationally-owned gas platform populated by a large international work crew. In short, strengthening Lebanon economically makes strategic sense only if handing Hezbollah billions of dollars makes strategic sense.

Yet another significant cost is to Israel’s democracy and rule of law, and the inviolability of its sovereign territory. The deal is being rammed through in Israel during the final weeks of a government that has collapsed. Israel’s Basic Law: Referendum requires that sovereign Israeli territory can be ceded to another country only after a referendum or Knesset approval with at least 80 votes.

In the run-up to the agreement, its supporters denied that Israel would cede any territorial waters (as opposed to economic waters) and argued on that basis that a referendum was not required. Now that the deal has been published, even the government admits that Israel is ceding territorial waters to Lebanon – but still refuses to have a referendum.

Despite the requirement for either a referendum or a Knesset super-majority, the deal is not even being brought to a vote in the Knesset at all. This is for the obvious reason that everybody knows that, if it were brought to a Knesset vote, it would lose.

Finally, it should be noted that Israel’s High Court has created a doctrine that a caretaker government can’t make major decisions that will bind future governments without a compelling reason. For example, a string of appointments made in the last months of the last Netanyahu administration was struck down by the High Court. This doctrine has no basis in law and we oppose it, but if it is applied at all, it must be applied equitably. There is no compelling reason for this deal to be signed now.

The fact that the Lebanese government is collapsing is not a reason to rush – it is a reason to wait (as is the potentially imminent collapse of Lebanon’s suzerain, the Islamic Republic of Iran). Presumably, the fact that Prime Minister Lapid wishes to appear statesmanlike on the eve of an election is also not a compelling reason to rush into a bad deal.

The writer is founder and chairman of the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum, which petitioned the High Court against the constitutionality of surrendering sovereign Israeli territory without a national referendum.