10 reasons faulty Israel-Lebanon gas deal smells foul

The best Israel can do now is hope that the accord turns out as Lapid insists, although he likely will not be the leader to see it executed. And unless it secures deterrence against Hezbollah and produces billions in revenue for Israel, Israelis will have many good reasons to protest.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid leads a Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, July 24, 2022. Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid leads a Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, July 24, 2022. Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL.
Alex Traiman
Alex Traiman is the CEO and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate).

After 10 years of failing to reach an agreement on the Israel-Lebanon maritime border, Prime Minister Yair Lapid has announced that an accord has been reached, calling it a “historic achievement.”

The agreement is highly controversial for a number of reasons, including that Israel essentially ceded the entire negotiating position it held firmly for over a decade and accepted the border demarcation proposed by Lebanon at the start of negotiations, with the exception of a small portion of territory near the land border between the two nations.

There are believed to be significant deposits of natural gas within the disputed waters, deposits that Lebanon will now be able and expected to exploit. Israel will receive some compensation for gas extracted from its territorial waters, though the actual volume of natgas in the well remains unspecified and the percentage of the royalties has yet to be fully negotiated.

Hezbollah is celebrating the deal as a victory while many in Israel and the United States—particularly those who had long been involved in the negotiations prior to Yair Lapid’s ascension as caretaker prime minister—are calling the agreement a disaster.

1. Sovereign doctrine

The main issue relates to the value of the natural gas contained within the economic waters given up. The Qana well/Sidon reservoir is believed to have major quantities, although no commercially-viable quantities have been officially confirmed. A seismic study performed in 2012 suggested that the well may have as much as 25.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

In addition to Qana, reports have referenced other potential reservoirs in the zone. On Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, who supports the deal, told JNS, “We are satisfied and happy that Lebanon will now be able to develop the fields—the one that everybody is talking about [Qana], as well as other fields in those waters.”

Yet aside from the quantities of natgas, issues of sovereignty and security loom large. Where the maritime border is drawn impacts how close the Iranian proxy Hezbollah can get to Israeli population centers. And negotiations in which Israel gives up sovereign territory follow a dangerous pattern for Israel in which it signals that it is willing to cede areas of significant value whenever pressed to do so.

2. Negotiating with terrorists

While not in an official capacity, Hezbollah has been an active party to the negotiations. In early July, Hezbollah sent three drones towards the Karish natgas rig, located south of the maritime border in Israeli economic waters. The IDF shot them down but a clear message was sent that if Lebanese demands over the Qana well, which both Israel and Lebanon previously claimed, were not satisfactorily met, then the Karish well was not safe from Hezbollah fire.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly threatened Israel with war during the negotiations in recent months. Just last week, after it appeared talks might break down over new Lebanese demands, Defense Minister Benny Gantz publicly ordered Israeli troops on high alert, following warnings from the Mossad that Hezbollah might launch an imminent attack.

Proponents of the deal insist that Lebanon’s having its own natgas rig opposite Israel’s Karish rig provides mutual incentives not to spark a conflict. We do not know how close Israel was and remains to being in an all-out war with Iran’s largest terror proxy, and we don’t know how much time signing such a deal buys Israel before a future conflict.

We do know that immediately following the agreement on the deal, Nasrallah celebrated it as a victory, citing Hezbollah’s “resistance” as the primary factor in convincing Israel to agree.

3. Bad buoy

Israel insists that the major gain for it, the one that protects its security interests, is Lebanon’s acceptance of Israel’s border claims for a distance of 5 km. from the shore. The area has been marked for years by buoys that have already served for all intents and purposes as a de facto border. Yet in the deal, Lebanon does not formally recognize Israel’s territorial waters—some of which it ceded to Lebanon and are separate from the economic waters—as permanent demarcations, but rather as a “status quo” that may be renegotiated as part of a larger agreement in the future.

In practicable terms, Israel has not gained any territory or even any new understandings on its border. Rather, Lebanon acknowledges that the situation already existing will exist after the deal, pending some later event in which the demarcations are opened to renegotiation.

4. Third-party resellers

Israel is not signing a bilateral deal with Beirut. Lebanon still considers Israel to be an enemy state. Lebanon does not recognize Israel as a Jewish state as part of the deal. Lebanon does not recognize its existing land border with Israel. The agreement is being signed by Beirut and Jerusalem with the United States, which is meant to serve as a facilitator, future negotiator and guarantor of the deal.

Israel’s financial compensation for gas extracted under the deal, some of it in Israel’s economic territorial waters, will be negotiated later with the third-party commercial entity, Total Energy, a French company that intends to exploit the Qana well on behalf of Lebanon.

5. Unstable and unable

Beyond the fact that Lebanon is not a direct party to the deal with Israel, it is an unstable actor. The country does not have a stable government and Hezbollah wields significant influence over Lebanese politics. Worse, the country is in lamentable financial straits and a severe energy crisis. While one of the purposes of the deal is to alleviate Lebanon’s financial and energy woes, it is estimated that even if there is gas, it may take five to six years for quantities to reach shore. The environment does not lend itself to a large, viable commercial project and it is hard to see how Lebanon can securely expedite it.

6. Secret window

Though Israel and Lebanon have been negotiating for 10 years over the maritime border, American and Israeli officials have continually referenced a small and limited window of opportunity through which the deal needed to be closed. It appears that this window was based upon two factors: ramped-up threats from Hezbollah, and the likelihood that Yair Lapid—who takes his diplomatic marching orders from the Biden administration as well as French President Emmanuel Macron—may not be in office much longer.

Should former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who currently leads in the polls by a significant margin, return to power in the upcoming election, it is likely his government would have taken a much firmer stance against Lebanese demands. Netanyahu has railed against the maritime agreement agreed to by Lapid as a “complete surrender” to Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, nobody has told Israelis exactly why the accord needed to be signed urgently.

7. Caretaker peacemaker

The deal is being agreed upon just three weeks ahead of an election and barely two months since Lapid became a temporary “caretaker” prime minister of a transitional government. Israel’s faulty “anybody but Netanyahu” coalition collapsed in July, just a year after it was formed, triggering the early election. That government was initially led by Naftali Bennett, who last week tweeted that the agreement being signed looks nothing like the proposals he reviewed as prime minister. The convoluted coalition agreement, which called for Bennett and Lapid to alternate as prime minister, temporarily thrust Lapid into office once the government collapsed and the election was called.

In short, Lapid does not have a mandate from the electorate to govern the country and is meant to be a caretaker prime minister to handle both normal and urgent affairs until a new government can be sworn in. Yet Lapid is trying to prove to Israelis that he is fit to lead the country, using his caretaker post as the seat of his election campaign.

8. Capitulation without representation

Israel’s government is not meant to run with a caretaker at the helm and a lame-duck parliament on recess. As such, there are few clear rules or precedents about how affairs of state are to be conducted during such a period. Normally, an agreement like this would need to be brought to the Knesset for approval. However, at present there is no Knesset majority to pass even the most basic legislation, let alone a highly-controversial maritime border agreement with an enemy state and the transfer of natural resources worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

Israel’s recently appointed attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, recommended but did not demand that the deal be brought to the Knesset for approval. Lapid intends rather to simply present the deal to the legislature, but then approve the deal in the Lapid-Bennett appointed Cabinet, where it is expected to pass overwhelmingly. As such, the minority of politicians supporting Lapid as Israel’s next prime minister will pass the deal, whereas the Knesset, which represents the complete range of Israeli voters, would most likely reject it.

9. Stunning resignation

Israel’s lead negotiator Ehud Adiri suddenly quit just a week before the Lebanon agreement was announced. It was clear that all the positions Adiri was staking were about to be ceded by Lapid.

It was Adiri’s resignation that paved the way for Lapid to flip Israel’s previous negotiating position on its head and quickly close a deal Beirut could easily accept. The negotiations were closed by National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata, a Lapid confidante who has traveled to Washington for diplomatic meetings with the Biden administration more than any other Israeli official.

10. Faulty guarantees

Israel is essentially signing the deal because it is being brokered by the United States, and America has vowed to protect Israeli interests should Lebanon and Hezbollah violate it.

Meanwhile, the United States openly acknowledges the agreement may be problematic down the road. In a background press briefing by the White House on Tuesday, an unnamed senior administration official stated, “We expect that there may be other difficult moments as we implement this agreement moving forward.”

The official added that “No one can guarantee where the future lies—and therefore no one can guarantee that opportunities for the future of Israel, for the security of Israel, and for the economic prosperity of Lebanon will still be there at a different time.

“And if there’s any questions in the future of disagreement—not of conflict, which I do not expect, but of disagreement—the United States has assured both parties that it would use its best efforts through diplomatic means to see if it could help facilitate.”

Israel should know better than to trust such guarantees. After the Israel-Lebanon War of 2006, it was the UNIFIL international body that deployed in southern Lebanon following Israeli withdrawal, with a mandate “to ensure that its area of operations is not utilized for hostile activities of any kind.” Despite UNIFIL’s presence, Hezbollah has deployed over 150,000 missiles pointed at Israeli population centers, many of them long-range and precision-guided.

Similarly, the raging war between Russia and Ukraine demonstrates how a country can lose its power of deterrence to third-party guarantors. NATO guarantees to protect Ukraine in exchange for dismantling its nuclear weapons failed to stop Russia from launching deadly attacks and bidding to forcefully annex its sovereign territory.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman tweeted Wednesday that “All Israel is getting is a ‘guarantee’ from the US. What does that say, what is the nature of America’s commitment, and why is that good for Israel or America? Remember, Bush’s letter to Sharon was ripped up by HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] and the Budapest Memorandum was worthless.”

In 2004, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon received a letter from President George W. Bush recognizing Israel’s right to build in long-standing Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem such as East Talpiot and Ramot and in “settlement blocs” crucial for Israel’s security. According to the letter, these areas would remain within Israel’s borders in any arrangement with the Palestinians.

The 1994 Budapest Memorandum extended security assurances to Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan for joining the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Israel would have made a much stronger and more reliable guarantor of the gas reserve’s security as well as any royalties Lebanon may have been owed, had the deal been signed in reverse.

The best Israel can do now is hope that the deal turns out as Lapid insists, although he likely will not be the leader to see it executed. And unless the deal secures deterrence against Hezbollah, and produces billions in revenue for Israel, Israelis will have many good reasons to cry foul.

Alex Traiman is CEO and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of Jewish News Syndicate.

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