Israel and Lebanon signed the historic maritime border deal last week, just days ahead of Israel’s general elections, making it an obvious political football.
Caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed the agreement on behalf of Israel. Israel’s opposition parties were against the agreement and also contested the caretaker government’s authority to sign a binding agreement just days before an election to determine a new government configuration.
The agreement demarcates the maritime border and the division of rights between the two nations in areas of the Mediterranean Sea off the coasts of both Israel and Lebanon. It came after years of US-brokered negotiations, with considerable European involvement.
Israel and Lebanon have been formally at war since 1948. The peaceful conclusion of the dispute was an historic event.
Polls conducted days before the signing of the agreement showed that the public was divided on the matter. Opinions reflected the same political divide that exists in Israel between the two main and opposing blocs.
Just one week after the signing of the agreement, Israel is on the cusp of a major political change. Former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is poised to enter office again. He likely will lead a far-right, nationalist coalition. Many of his partners said the agreement with Lebanon was “illegal,” with Netanyahu himself saying that by signing on to the agreement Israel was “surrendering to Hizbullah.”
Theoretically, Netanyahu could withdraw from the agreement, but this would be highly unlikely, experts say.
“Foreign policy can be changed from one government to another,” said Robbie Sabel, a professor of international law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, “But once the state is party to an agreement, that binds all governments. Netanyahu knows this and has expected this, unlike certain members of his party. In this case, he is wiser and more knowledgeable.”
The agreement was both signed and ratified by the outgoing Lapid government, thus binding on Israel.
Once the state is party to an agreement, that binds all governments. Netanyahu knows this and has expected this, unlike certain members of his party. In this case, he is wiser and more knowledgeable.
Netanyahu has a history of inheriting agreements he does not like. Therefore, he has become experienced in working around them.
When he entered office for the first time in 1996, it was after the signing of the Oslo Accords, the beginning of the peace process with the Palestinians. It was signed by a leftist government, led by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Netanyahu was one of its most vociferous opponents.
In an interview with Israel’s Army Radio just days before this week’s elections, Netanyahu was asked about the maritime agreement.
“I will behave as I did with the Oslo Accords,” he answered.
“He knew the Oslo agreement was binding,” said Sabel. “What he did is try to emasculate it as far as he could without actually violating it.”
Indeed, throughout Netanyahu’s years as prime minister, he acted to weaken the Palestinian Authority, which is the foundation of the Oslo Accords. Progress toward a Palestinian state and the endgame of a permanent peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians has never been reached, much to Netanyahu’s satisfaction. The accords, however, were never canceled by any of the Netanyahu governments.
For Israel, the deal with Lebanon was not only about the division of rights in the Mediterranean Sea, but also about reducing the chances of an escalation with the Lebanese-based, Iranian-backed Hizbullah organization.
Tensions between Israel and Hizbullah have been high for a long time, also due to the disagreement on gas drilling in the formerly disputed waters. In the days before the Israeli government ratified the treaty, there was a heated debate in Israel about the drilling and its role in regional tensions.
“The agreements have very broad support among Israel’s security establishment and they have stabilized a potentially very tense situation on Israel’s northern border. A reversal on Israel’s position on that would be potentially destabilizing,” said Dr. Toby Greene, a lecturer in the Political Studies Department at Bar-Ilan University.
Opponents have raised concern that profits Lebanon would make from potential gas discoveries will be used to fund Hizbullah’s activities against Israel.
Unnamed Israeli defense officials were quoted in local media saying that the deal is beneficial for Israel and would help deflate tensions in the region. It will be difficult for Netanyahu to ignore this.
“There is no strong motivation on Netanyahu’s part to create an escalatory situation on Israel’s northern border,” Greene said.
According to Sabel, the commercial agreements stemming from the demarcation deal regarding drilling in the area are still to be signed. This is where a Netanyahu government could show its dismay.
“He could make the signing of these agreements more difficult,” Sabel explained. “But this could make problems for Israel, which according to the agreement has rights in the gas field which is partly in Lebanon’s border. However, the border which was determined in the agreement cannot be changed.”
“If Israel would withdraw from the agreement, this would be a violation. Israel doesn’t normally violate international agreements,” Sabel added.
The Netanyahu government which will likely be sworn in in the coming weeks is expected to be one of the most right-wing, nationalist coalitions to lead the country. As results became evident, Israel’s international allies have called out the expected coalition. It is likely that Netanyahu will be under scrutiny regarding his next government’s policies toward the Palestinians and other contentious issues.
“Since the US was involved, it would mean a dispute with the US and it is highly unlikely that any government in Israel would want to enter such a dispute,” Sabel said.
Alongside the US, France also was deeply involved in the negotiations with Lebanon.
If Israel would withdraw from the agreement, this would be a violation. Israel doesn’t normally violate international agreements.
A seasoned statesman, Netanyahu will be sure to choose his battles in the international arena carefully.
“The US is heavily invested in the agreement and very proud of it … as is France,” said Greene. “Netanyahu already faces challenges in terms of Israel’s international relations because many of Israel’s western allies will be concerned about the role of the far-right in the new coalition. He will not be looking for a confrontation with the US or European states.”
When the agreement was inked last week, no one knew Netanyahu was on his way to a political comeback. Poised to be the leader of a far-right government, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is certain to be cautious regarding the deal in order to avoid confrontation with his allies.
The agreement is expected to benefit the Israeli economy, which will receive a certain percentage of Lebanese profits from gas extraction. Together with the security benefits of stabilization, Netanyahu is not expected to walk away from the agreement.