Give interim Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid credit for belatedly understanding just how dangerous the off-shore gas deal he thought he had concluded with Lebanon last week was to his chances of remaining in his office. His initial agreement to territorial concessions to Lebanon in the gas fields off the country’s Mediterranean coast was political poison.
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu labeled it as a surrender to Hezbollah, the terrorist group that dominates Lebanon’s government, as well as to its masters in Iran. It meant that the Nov. 1 Knesset election might be fought over a serious policy difference, rather than being a referendum—as were the four votes held from 2019 to 2021—on whether Netanyahu ought to remain prime minister.
Fortunately for Lapid, the Lebanese provided him with an escape hatch, by sending the Israelis some “amendments” to the pact. The American interlocutors in the negotiation assured him that there was nothing in them that amounted to a deal-breaker. But Lapid used it as an excuse to back out of the fiasco, while grandstanding about protecting Israel’s security interests.
The next step, both in terms of American diplomacy and further Hezbollah provocations aimed at convincing the Israelis that the terrorists will sabotage efforts to exploit the natural gas fields if they don’t give in, is unclear.
Yet, as much as the outcome of the initial negotiations appeared, as Caroline Glick noted in JNS, to be complete capitulation to Hezbollah on Lapid’s part, the real issue here is not his weakness or Netanyahu’s boasts that he would have done better. It’s that the driving force behind the now-abandoned agreement was the determination of the United States and President Joe Biden to force Israel to agree to something that previous American and Israeli administrations had never contemplated.
The willingness of Biden, who has been largely hands-off with respect to Middle East diplomacy since entering the White House, to get personally involved in pressuring Lapid to back down in the face of Lebanon’s dangerous demands is telling. It demonstrates how the Russia-Ukraine war and the quest for more foreign oil and gas production is his top foreign-policy priority.
It also dovetails nicely with his ongoing obsession with appeasement of Iran. Despite the lip service occasionally paid by Biden and other top officials to their commitment to maintaining the alliance with Israel, this discouraging episode illustrates how far down the list of U.S. priorities Israel’s security has fallen.
As Haaretz reported, the key moment in the process that led up to this debacle was a phone call between Biden and Lapid that took place on Aug. 31. The press releases issued by the two leaders’ offices contained a key to what followed.
The American release noted the president’s emphasis on the “importance of concluding the maritime boundary negotiations between Israel and Lebanon in the coming weeks.” The Israeli version said nothing about that.
The upshot was that Biden had made it clear that the Americans wanted a deal on the maritime dispute concluded, pronto.
David Friedman, America’s ambassador to Israel during the Trump administration, had worked on the issue during his four-year tenure. But, as he explained, previous negotiations had been predicated on the notion that the disputed Qana field would be split between Israel and Lebanon.
The pact that Lapid signed off on, however, gave all of it to the latter. As Friedman tweeted, “No one then imagined 100% to Lebanon and 0% to Israel. Would love to understand how we got here.”
Biden’s biggest current worry is the raging inflation that is reducing the standard of living for middle- and working-class Americans, particularly where the price of gas is concerned. His support for Ukraine has led to international sanctions on Moscow that haven’t done much to hurt President Vladimir Putin’s regime, but have had a devastating impact on the West.
Due to his fealty to the “Green New Deal” global-warming agenda—an article of faith to his party’s left wing—Biden has done everything possible to discourage oil production in the United States. This has entailed essentially discarding the energy independence achieved during Trump’s presidency.
Since rising gas prices are likely to hurt the Democrats in the upcoming midterm congressional elections, he is doing whatever he can to get other countries to increase their oil production, so as to minimize the cost of the U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
To date, this effort has been a complete failure, as the decision of the Saudi-led OPEC oil cartel to reduce oil production, rather than increase it, made clear. This is payback for the way in which the Democrats’ have been devaluing the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia in recent years, while seeking to empower and enrich the kingdom’s erstwhile Iranian adversary.
Facilitating the flow of natural gas to foreign markets on both sides of the currently negotiated Israeli-Lebanese maritime border won’t have an immediate impact. But it will encourage producers and sellers—something that will likely help to lower prices.
Unfortunately, however, the Americans clearly hope that strong-arming Israel in order to help Iran-proxy Hezbollah—which will presumably profit, directly or indirectly, from Lebanon’s natural-gas business—will influence its masters in Tehran to stop stalling and sign a new, and even weaker, nuclear deal with the West.
If this happens after more humiliating U.S. concessions to Iran in the negotiations that will likely resume after the midterms, it ought to get Iranian oil flowing freely to the West. That could impact the price of oil in the long term and help the Democrats’ efforts to hold onto the White House in 2024, even if it also guarantees that the Iranians will eventually obtain a nuclear weapon. It will also constitute a betrayal of the courageous demonstrators who have taken to the streets in Iranian cities to resist the theocratic regime.
Lapid walked into this trap because he is committed to a strategy of avoiding public disputes with Biden at all costs. For months, as the Americans moved closer to an agreement with Iran that he knew was antithetical to any notion of protecting the security of Israel or its Arab allies, he spoke of trying to influence the U.S. not to go down the path of appeasement.
Iran’s hardline stance in negotiations momentarily seemed to vindicate him. Yet, when Biden gave him his marching orders on Lebanon, he appeared to have believed that he had no choice but to blindly obey.
Seen from this perspective, it’s clear that Lapid was not so much surrendering to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah as he was to Biden, though the blow to Israel’s national interests was much the same.
It remains to be seen whether Biden will tolerate, even if only for the five weeks until the election, Lapid’s act of political survival in moving away from the Lebanon pact that the U.S. administration has ordered him to accept. What is obvious, however, is that Lapid has not yet learned what Netanyahu came to understand during the course of his 15 years as prime minister.
Managing relations with Israel’s sole superpower ally is the nation’s top foreign-policy priority. And though doing so is vitally important, Washington can’t be allowed to dictate to its small Israeli ally. The true measure of an Israeli prime minister’s diplomatic acumen is not how close he can stay to an American president. The real test is showing that a premier can say “no” to the Americans when it’s absolutely necessary, as it was with respect to the natural-gas-fields dispute.
Lapid failed that test. Biden and his team now understand how far they can push him, even when Israeli security is on the line. That’s a fatal flaw in any leader.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.