Will the Israel-Lebanon deal play a role in elections? - opinion

With elections coming up and the new Lebanon-Israel maritime border deal, it may be a playing a major role in how people will vote.

 PRIME 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.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
PRIME 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.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

If the approaching election were a normal election, about authentic choices relating to real issues, the current agreement between Israel and Lebanon, concerning the maritime border between the two states, would certainly be playing a major role in how people would vote. 

But that is not what the election is about. For the Center/Left camp, it is once again about “yes Bibi or no Bibi,” for the Right/religious camp it is about getting rid “of this awful, dangerous government,” and for the Arab parties, it is about trying to fight indifference in the Arab sector.

Indirect negotiations between Israel and Lebanon about the demarcation of the maritime border began exactly two years ago – three months before US President Donald Trump was ousted from power, and when Benjamin Netanyahu was still prime minister. The negotiations took place under US and UN auspices. According to the then-energy minister Yuval Steinitz, the negotiations stalled because Lebanon changed its position seven times.

I do not recall that the Israeli media took the negotiations seriously, and I am doubtful whether the general public was aware of their existence. The negotiations were renewed in October 2021 – this time with Naftali Bennett as prime minister, and with the US under President Joe Biden playing a more determining role. The US determination appears to be directly affected by its desire to try to save Lebanon from economic collapse, and its complete subjugation to Iran.

Still, the issue of the negotiations did not hit the headlines in Israel, until on September 22, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced at the UN that he was optimistic about an agreement being reached. On October 12, the agreement – drafted by the US – received the preliminary approval of the Israeli government, with Alternate Prime Minister Bennett voting in favor, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked voting against, and Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel abstaining. 

 THEN-PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett speaks to Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked in the Kneset plenum, in May. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) THEN-PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett speaks to Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked in the Kneset plenum, in May. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

The agreement was laid on the Knesset table for the perusal of its members, but they will not vote on it (this with the approval of Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara). On October 26, the government is expected to give the agreement its final approval – unless the High Court of Justice will rule in favor of several petitions from opposition factors to prevent its final signature before the elections.

What makes this agreement so controversial? 

First of all, it was reached by a transition government, which is limited in what it can do, though it is not yet clear whether an agreement such as the current one with Lebanon is included in this limitation. Undoubtedly the HCJ will deal with this issue when it will deal with the petitions submitted to it.

Secondly, the government has decided – as it has the right to do under article 10a of the Rules of Procedure for the Government’s Work – that the Knesset can view the agreement, but it will not vote on it. Furthermore, members of the opposition are arguing that since the agreement allegedly includes a relinquishment of territories under Israeli sovereignty to Lebanon, 80 MKs must approve it before it can go into force, and if 80 MKs do not vote in favor of it, a referendum will have to be held.

More specifically the opposition is arguing that since Israel has agreed in the agreement to let Lebanon set up a gas rig a little to the north of the Israeli gas rig Karish (which is soon to go into production), in what not-so-long-ago Israel considered to be part of its “economic waters,” was not only handing over to Lebanon part of Israel’s “sovereign territory,” but also rights over highly valuable gas reserves that might be found there, which according to them rightfully belongs to Israel. 

In the agreement, Israel will be getting royalties for whatever gas will be produced from the Lebanese installation, but these will amount to “only” 17% of the profits, even though originally much higher figures were mentioned. The question the HCJ will have to deal with over this issue is whether economic waters can be considered “sovereign territory.” 

Thirdly, there is the question of why Israel is in such a hurry to reach an agreement. Netanyahu has argued that Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz simply gave in to Hezbollah’s threats to attack Karish, which is close to the disputed area, and other targets in Israel, if it will not surrender to Lebanese demands regarding the maritime area under dispute. He argued that this was a show of weakness on Israel’s part that was catastrophic for Israel’s military posture.

Lapid and Gantz denied that Hezbollah’s threats had anything to do with their decisions on this issue. In fact, the very tight timetable was dictated by realities in Lebanon: especially the approaching retirement, at the end of this month, of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who favors the agreement with Israel, and elections for a new president, which are expected to further destabilize the already unstable Lebanese regime.

What is not stated publicly, but undoubtedly plays an important consideration in favor of the haste, is the concern that should Netanyahu form the next government after the elections on November 1, he will sabotage any progress in reaching an agreement, if an agreement will not be signed by then.

Of course, finalizing the agreement before the elections will not change Netanyahu’s opposition to it. In fact, in the beginning of October, Netanyahu declared that if and when he will form his new government, he will refuse to accept any agreement with Lebanon that might have been signed beforehand. It is said that since he made this declaration Netanyahu backed down from it, due to legal problems to which it gave rise, but the current government views Netanyahu as a saboteur (not only a potential saboteur) on this issue, and doesn’t trust him to act honestly.

The question is whether Netanyahu really objects to the agreement on principle, or whether his objection is primarily the result of his negative approach to anything the Government of Change has suggested or promoted in the last 16 months. One may assume that since the negotiations began when he was still prime minister, Netanyahu is familiar with the various issues involved. 

By now he, like all Israelis who are interested, has probably read the basic text of the agreement, which has been published in the media and has been laid on the Knesset table, but the fact that he has so far refused to receive a much deeper briefing from the prime minister about the agreement, including a military evaluation, and his apparent disinterest in the widespread support by the top command of the defense establishment for the agreement, suggest that his approach to the issue is not a businesslike approach, but a purely political one.

If this is the case, then one can hardly expect the average voter to look at the issues objectively and decide whether in the final reckoning the agreement is good or bad for Israel.

Perhaps it was Bennett who hit the nail on its head when he said: “The agreement is neither a historic diplomatic victory nor a terrible surrender. It is a solution made necessary by circumstances occurring in problematic timing.” Unfortunately, no one listens to Bennett anymore.

The writer worked in the Knesset for many years as a researcher and has published extensively both journalistic and academic articles on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her most recent book is Israel’s Knesset Members - A Comparative Study of an Undefined Job, published by Routledge.