Israel and Lebanon have just signed a draft deal resolving a decades long dispute over territorial waters on the Mediterranean Sea. Aside from formally agreeing on the maritime border demarcation between the two countries, the deal would allocate drilling rights at one contested gas field to Lebanon and confirm Israeli control of another field to the south, safeguarding new sources of energy and income for both countries should the drilling results lead to a commercially potential finding.
This is a perilous and unstable time for both Israel and Lebanon. Lebanon is in the throes of economic collapse with the government not even able to supply reliable electricity. Israel is facing increased West Bank Palestinian militia-terrorist attacks on both Israeli soldiers and civilians. In addition, Israel’s present government is transitional with general elections to be held next week, and the predicted makeup of the post-election period unclear.
Given this background, was it a good idea to nevertheless go ahead with the signing now? Would it not have been better to wait until the political situation stabilizes in both countries before going ahead with a controversial game changer of such great magnitude?
Both countries faced this deliberation head on, each on their own terrain. In Lebanon, the potential opposition to the accord was Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia Islamist dominant political party. They are a militant group, deemed by the European Union as a terrorist group, who are virulently anti-Israel. Their foreign orientation policy can be summed up as opposing any policy benefiting Israel. Nevertheless, they have supported the agreement. Their reasons may be that they are convinced that it is too beneficial for Lebanon to forgo, but also that sabotaging the agreement would lead to intense backlash against them threatening to undermine their power base. The bottom line is their support for the accord. On the Israeli side, the transitional government opted to only seek cabinet agreement rather than bring the proposal to a parliamentary Knesset vote. In response, opponents to the plan appealed to the Israeli Supreme court claiming that this was too important an issue for a transitional government to decide upon, on their own. However, all 4 appeals launched to postpone the signing were turned down by the high court thereby legitimizing the Cabinet’s decision.
While prudence is often preferable in life and in politics, I believe that in this instance resolutely pursuing ratification, even if controversial, was the advantageous way to go. This was not an opportunity to miss. Even in the absence of Israeli and Lebanese backslapping and fanfare after the signing, and even though the signing itself was done on separate documents presented to the US mediator, this is still a dramatic turnaround agreement for two countries who are technically still at war and have no official relations.
Indeed, it is an opportunity for many participants to benefit: The US, who is interested in a stable and prosperous Middle East, is in favor of the agreement which they believe will have a beneficial stabilizing effect for Lebanon, Israel and the Middle East. It also illustrates that the Americans still have worthy diplomatic clout. If Lebanon handles the income generated from the drilling with good governance, the accord will give this country which was once rich and well run, a second chance to improve the standard of living for the average Lebanese citizen. Furthermore, the pact should also have a moderating effect on both the internal and foreign policy of Hezbollah which will also benefit the Lebanese people.
For Israel there are several potential benefits. One is a potential source of income for a country which has almost no natural resources. Second, there will be security benefits since it will impede and dissuade Hezbollah militants from implementing hostile actions against Israel for fear of impeding their flow of energy and source of income to their coffers. In fact, it would not be farfetched to claim that a successful agreement along with the commercial benefits from the drilling, can help avoid a third future war between Lebanon and Israel. Third, in addition to the peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan and the countries who signed the Abraham Accords, this is an additional link of normalizing relations with its Arab neighbors. It represents yet another nail in the coffin of Palestinian and pan Arab opponents of peace who for decades have been attempting to isolate and completely delegitimize the Jewish state. After all, how can they continue depicting Israel as a pariah if it has so many official connections with the Arab world now including a third neighbor Lebanon?
In terms of the Israeli response to the accord, it can go two different ways. Right wing hardliners may entrench their stance asserting that if so many Arab countries accept Israel with its present policy, then why be more accommodating to Palestinian aspirations? On the other hand, those who support the concept of reconciliation but have over the years shifted to the right side of the political spectrum in the belief the Arab countries are inflexible toward Israel and cannot be negotiated with, may be willing to reconsider. Most important, in my view, is the potential for such an agreement to convince the mainstream Palestinian leadership that their only reasonable way forward for them is ideological compromise, that is to accept and acknowledge that the Jewish people also have legitimate nationalistic claims to the land. I believe that one of the main fundamental stumbling blocks to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation and fulfillment of Palestinian aspirations on the Palestinian side is their insistence on refusing to compromise, either in theory or practice and insisting that only their interpretation of history is valid and must be accepted exclusively hook line and sinker. This Lebanese Israeli accord further weakens this argument and strategy. Pro Palestinians are again seeing that history moves on, and more and more Arab countries are rejecting their rigid approach. Perhaps this even will be a wake up call for them.
European countries also have a vested stake in this accord. They are precariously almost totally dependent on Russian gas and OPEC oil. Now, their dependence on Russian natural gas conflicts with their criticism of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. Moreover, the OPEC countries have refused to be sympathetic to their plight and are not accommodating in terms of increasing the energy flow along with holding down prices. If the Israeli-Lebanon accord succeeds commercially, it will afford a partial potential long-term alternative for those energy dependent European countries.
Given the obstacles to the agreement overcome by both Lebanon and Israel, one could conclude that just as some crucial military victories have been attained by a hair’s breadth, that this agreement represents a victory for peace by a hair’s breadth. Occasionally saner heads do prevail. This is a salient example of such a case.