By Ron Kampeas
Israel’s government has approved a historic maritime accord with Lebanon, as both countries are under pressure to get the agreement signed before October ends and their leaders may change.
The Israeli and U.S. governments pushed back against claims that the deal ceded too much to Lebanon.
The details of the deal are not yet in place, but Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid said Wednesday at a press conference, hours after his cabinet approved the deal, that Israel had declined two last-minute Lebanese demands.
Lebanon had wanted to remove from the agreement Israel’s freedom to secure a line of buoys installed by Israel as a functional border, and Lebanon did not want Israel to get income from a gas field that the Lebanese plan to launch on their side of the border.
The final deal preserves the buoy option and gives Israel dividends from the gas field, Lapid said. “Israel will receive approximately 17% of the revenues from the Lebanese gas field, the Qana-Sidon field, if and when they will open it,” he said.
Lebanese president Michel Aoun also approved of the deal. “The final version of the offer satisfies Lebanon, meets its demands and preserves its rights to its natural wealth,” his official Twitter account said.
The deal is a first for Israel and Lebanon, a country still technically at war with Israel. It lacks the normalization component of Israel’s agreements in 2020 with four Arab countries under the Abraham Accords and is not as comprehensive as the peace deals Israel signed with Egypt and Jordan and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
Implementation is not guaranteed; both governments are lame ducks. Aoun is ending his term as president, and Lapid faces an election on Nov. 1. Some reports have said the sides plan to sign the agreement on Oct. 20.
Israel’s hawkish opposition parties, led by the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, believe Lapid gave up too much territory, and have indicated they may launch legal challenges to the deal. Hezbollah, the terrorist militia that retains a great deal of power and influence in Lebanon, and which rejects any engagement with Israel, has not yet weighed in on the deal, although it has previously indicated it would support it.
Similar criticism has come from right-wing pro-Israel groups in the United States and from Republicans, led by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who allege that Lapid folded under Biden administration pressure.
Lapid and his defense minister, Benny Gantz, deny they faced any pressure to sign the deal, and said that if anything, it would tamp down tensions; Hezbollah had been threatening to attack Israel if it launched a gas exploration platform in waters designated under Israeli control under the agreement. Now that Lebanon has signed off on the agreement, that is less likely, Gantz said, in part because income from the gas fields could wean Lebanon’s government off of Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons.
“This important agreement serves Israel’s interests and establishes a new security equation,” said Gantz, who last week, when the deal looked shaky, heightened Israel’s alertness on the northern border. “It has the potential to reduce Iran’s influence on Lebanon.” Gantz was quoted on Twitter by Tal Schneider, a reporter for Times of Israel.
Notably, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerhouse lobby that tends to be hawkish but that also in most cases follows Israel’s lead, praised the deal, albeit in cautious terms.
“AIPAC welcomes the U.S.-brokered deal between Israel and Lebanon that demarcates Israel’s maritime border and recognizes its economic rights to natural gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean,” it said on Twitter. “We commend the Biden administration for working with the Israeli governmentt to reach this historic agreement.”
David Schenker, who led negotiations during the Trump administration as the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, said Israel’s apparent concessions to Lebanon were stunning. He said Israel at that time claimed territory north of the buoy line, which it has now relinquished.
“As per the new agreement, Lebanon will attain virtually 100% of its initial negotiating position,” Schenker, who now directs a program at the Washington Center for Near East Policy think tank, wrote in the Wall Street Journal. Schenker did not explain how he knew the details of the deal.
In a call with reporters, a senior Biden administration official ridiculed claims that Israel gave too much away and emphasized that Netanyahu, whom he did not cite by name, had not made any agreement at all.
“Many people have said over the last several days that a better deal could have been done for one side or the other,” said the official, who requested anonymity to speak frankly. “Others have claimed that they could have negotiated a better deal — some from the region, some from the United States. They were in power; they did not reach a better deal. And when those so-called ‘better terms’ for either side were on the table, they ended up not reaching and not concluding an agreement.”