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Israel caves to a bad maritime deal

Leaving our regional allies with the impression that Israel fears a confrontation with Hezbollah does not bode well for the Abraham Accords.

Israel’s security cabinet votes to approve a maritime border and gas agreement with Lebanon that was mediated by the U.S., Oct. 12, 2022. Credit: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO.
Israel’s security cabinet votes to approve a maritime border and gas agreement with Lebanon that was mediated by the U.S., Oct. 12, 2022. Credit: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO.
Efraim Inbar

Israel and Lebanon’s recent maritime border agreement is flawed in several ways. There was no reason for Israel to give up all of the disputed maritime areas. Israel failed to take advantage of Lebanon’s great weakness in the negotiations; Lebanon is in a deep and ongoing economic and political crisis. The prospect of gas revenues from the disputed territory is far more critical to Lebanon than to Israel.

Moreover, the Iran-backed Hezbollah organization, which has launched attacks on Israel for decades, has been weakened in the Lebanese arena and even lost its majority in parliament after the May 2022 elections.

Similarly, Israel did not take advantage of many years of American support for a compromise proposal that would have given Israel almost half of the disputed territory. Israeli diplomacy failed to preserve American support for this compromise despite Jerusalem’s great efforts to mute the differences with Washington over the nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Furthermore, Washington needs this agreement more than Israel. The US government is facing an energy crisis and inflation and needs good news on gas exploration.

The eagerness of the Israeli transitional government to reach an agreement only makes sense in light of the upcoming Israeli election on Nov. 1. Israel hastened to sign an agreement even though Lebanon and the United States felt greater urgency than Israel to reach an understanding. Moreover, it is unclear whether the United States compensated Israel in other areas.

Israel could have afforded to wait for a better offer, or perhaps a more friendly administration. It has a significant military advantage in the eastern Mediterranean, and can defend its interests there.

It is true that an agreement between Israel and Lebanon, which lessens tensions, creates a better and more stable business environment to secure gas exploration and exploitation. However, the accord does not improve Israel’s regional position, because economic concerns are secondary in the strategic equation. Lebanon refused to participate in a signing ceremony that could have lent the agreement diplomatic significance.

Moreover, it is worth noting that Lebanon is not an independent state. It is essentially an Iranian satrapy using Hezbollah, its proxy, to call the shots in that state.

Hezbollah is a terrorist organization whose declared goal is to destroy Israel, and any deal with it would not be worth the paper it was written on. Since Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah has invented various new pretexts to sustain tensions with Israel.

The blue-line demarcation that received the blessing of the United Nations as an international land border between Israel and Lebanon is often violated. Indeed, the line of buoys that mark Israel’s northern security zone in the Mediterranean Sea has not been recognized by Lebanon and may well become the next pretext for renewed friction with Hezbollah.

The proximity of Israel’s approval of the agreement to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah’s threats to hit the rig in the Karish gas field generated the impression that Israel feared the threats.

The claims made by Israeli government officials that the agreement will bring security and delay a war only reinforce this impression. This troubling message undermines Israeli deterrence, which implies unwillingness to strike when necessary. One of the rules of the game in our region is that the refusal to employ force communicates weakness, which invites aggression.

Hezbollah’s threat to strike an Israeli gas rig could have supplied the legitimacy Israel needed to deal with the threat posed by the plethora of missiles in its hands, all designed to serve its masters in Tehran. To attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and prevent an existential threat to the Jewish state, it is necessary first to eliminate the threat posed by Lebanon’s missiles.

We should not forget that moderate Arab states are watching Israel’s behavior, especially in the Gulf. Without determined and effective action, Israel’s allies in the region, wary of American withdrawal and fearful of Iran, will be reluctant to rely on Israel and could later move closer to Tehran.

The impression that Israel feared a confrontation with Hezbollah does not bode well for the Abraham Accords.

Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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