Lapid Said To Be Considering Security Cabinet Vote on Israel’s Maritime Border Deal With Lebanon
Keeping the negotiations behind closed doors might be beneficial for both the Israeli and Lebanese governments, experts say
As both Israel’s prime minister and Lebanon’s president released optimistic statements related to a maritime border deal between the two countries on Monday, an Israeli news outlet reported that Prime Minister Yair Lapid could take the approval of the deal to the closed chambers of the Diplomatic-Security Cabinet instead of passing it through the Knesset.
Conservative news outlet Israel Hayom, closely identified with Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu, cites unnamed sources that it says are “close to the negotiations.”
Throughout the modern history of Israel, many such deals have been approved in secret, for both countries’ sakes, Dr. Yonatan Freeman of the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told The Media Line. This is especially true when dealing with countries that Israel does not have a full-fledged, open relationship with.
Israel and Lebanon are holding ongoing, indirect negotiations to set the maritime border between the Israeli and Lebanese exclusive economic zones beyond the countries’ territorial waters in the Mediterranean Sea. Part of the gas fields discovered recently in the Eastern Mediterranean are inside the disputed maritime territory. The negotiations, which began more than a decade ago, are being mediated by US Senior Advisor for Energy Security Amos Hochstein and both countries’ leaders have made several announcements that a deal is imminent.
Freeman noted that Lapid’s decision to hold a vote on a deal with Lebanon in the Security Cabinet instead of in the Knesset may have been made by other leaders in the same position. In fact, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu took an agreement with Turkey to provide $20 million compensation for the families of the Turkish victims of the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident to the Security Cabinet for approval.
In general, said Freeman, anything that has to do with an international treaty between Israel and another country must be ratified in the Knesset.
To avoid this, the maritime border agreement cannot be called a treaty, but instead be classified simply as a document signed with Lebanon, “some sort of a document of mutual benefit to both sides. As such, you don’t have to tell anyone what’s in it,” Freeman said.
It would be impossible for Hizbullah to recognize such an agreement where Lebanon recognizes officially the border with Israel
Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former foreign policy adviser to the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, told The Media Line that it could be convenient for the Cabinet to hold the vote behind closed doors.
“It seems to me that it could be the best choice. It would be easier to pass the decision, rather than having to discuss it for two weeks and then vote,” he said.
Freeman proposed additional possible reasons why the deal could be signed behind the scenes.
One is related to Israeli politics. With elections coming up in November, he said, the details of a signed agreement could impact the outcome for Lapid.
For example, according to Freeman, voters could believe that Israel gave up too much to Lebanon and that could hurt Lapid, and anyone else in his coalition that supports the decision, in the November 1 election.
Freeman also raised the possibility that the secrecy is a request from the Lebanese side. “It’s not just about having Israelis not know what’s going on, it could also be that the other side is asking that,” he said.
Freeman explained that revealing the details of the deal could increase the unpopularity of the Lebanese government among its citizens. “If indeed the Lebanese government is claiming: ‘yes we got everything that we wanted,’ and then the deal shows otherwise, that could cause the government there to be even more unpopular,” he said.
Neriah explained that some people in Lebanon would see the deal as a beginning of normalization with Israel. “Some would oppose the agreement because it is in fact recognizing the border with Israel, whereas Hizbullah and all its supporters just continue to call Israel the ‘occupiers’ instead of calling it the state of Israel,” he said.
“It would be impossible for Hizbullah to recognize such an agreement where Lebanon recognizes officially the border with Israel,” added Neriah.
On the other hand, he points out, the Lebanese government believes that beginning the exploration of the gas fields would certainly give a boost to the Lebanese economy, which today is in shambles.
“We’ve seen a deterioration day after day of the situation. The Lebanese pound has reached a record of 39,000 Lebanese pounds for a dollar,” meaning that the currency has been devalued by 95%, he added.
Mohamad Radwan Al Omar, president of the Lebanese Assembly for Inclusive Development and representative adviser of Lebanon for MediateGuru’s Global Advisory Board, told The Media Line that Lebanon is currently living with the worst stages of an international and national crisis.
“Locals say that back when we had the civil war, which was one of Lebanon’s worst nightmares, electricity and water were still available, employment rates were high and there were enough goods and money for all,” he said.
Today, according to Al Omar, “with no direct combat we are lacking electricity, fuel, gas, water, wheat. … There are no jobs or money. The currency lost its value and higher percentages of people are leaving the country.”
“The current ruling power was heavily relying on the gas industry to lift the economy again, knowing that the available energy sources are one of the biggest in the world,” he added.
However, he believes that it is not the answer to healing the Lebanese economy.
The extraction of the natural gas is no longer beneficial to Lebanon, he said, “especially because it requires a market to sell it to, not to mention the extremely expensive and costly infrastructure.”
For the time being, Neriah does not believe that the deal is as close as it seems, based on the statement issued on Monday by Lapid.
In the declaration, added Neriah, Lapid “says that the extraction of gas from Karish has nothing to do with the negotiations of the maritime border, which is completely the opposite of what the Lebanese say and what Hizbullah says.”