Analysis |

Lapid Surrendered on Lebanon Maritime Deal. But Not to Nasrallah

Israel needs American support on its main fronts and in return must do what the U.S. asks of it – which is why Lapid acceded to Biden’s demand, even if he did try to keep the story under wraps

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
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Lapid and Biden during U.S. President's visit to Israel in July.
Lapid and Biden during U.S. President's visit to Israel in July.Credit: Hadas Parush
Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

On August 31, Yair Lapid and Joe Biden held a phone call. Afterward, the offices of both men issued a press release, as is customary, but used different language. Hiding in the White House version was a story that was missing from the announcement of the Prime Minister’s Office: “The President also emphasized the importance of concluding the maritime boundary negotiations between Israel and Lebanon in the coming weeks.”

In other words, Biden simply told Lapid he was fed up with the delays, and was sending his envoy Amos Hochstein to the region to complete the deal and enable the development of Israel’s Karish and Lebanon’s Qana natural-gas fields.

There was no Israeli capitulation to Hezbollah, as opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu claimed, but rather assent to a demand by the White House. What can be done in a relationship between a superpower and a small client state that is dependent on its patron for political, military and economic support. Lapid realized he would pay a political price in the upcoming election if he acceded to the Americans, leading him to conceal the real story and keep his distance from it. The negotiations over the maritime border were presented in Israel as a technical matter to be sorted out by middle-level diplomats and officials, not as a historic agreement with an enemy state, even if indirect. Netanyahu’s criticism pushed Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz into a corner, and they announced their support for the deal without preparing public opinion in advance.

The Karish gas rig in May. Lapid realized that he would pay a political price if he responded to the Americans, so he tried to downplay the storyCredit: ARI RABINOVITCH / REUTERS

Biden’s personal involvement in marking the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon – the president’s conversation with Lapid and sending Hochstein to shuttle between Jerusalem and Beirut – stands out against his withdrawal from promoting peace between Israel and its neighbors. Even the Trump administration issued a proposal for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and also brokered the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. Biden doesn’t want to waste his time and political prestige on pointless and hopeless moves between Israel and the Palestinians, but he did find the time to address the dispute over Karish and Qana.

It’s not hard to guess his motives. Biden wants to keep Western countries united on the side of Ukraine in its war with Russia. He fears his European allies will break under the Russian economic pressure, with Europeans freezing this winter without the gas from the crippled Nord Stream pipelines. Any addition of oil or natural gas to the global market will give the Americans more breathing room, which can be translated into military aid for Ukraine. It’s why Biden wanted a new nuclear accord that would have lifted sanctions and increased energy exports from Iran. It’s why Biden visited Israel and Saudi Arabia in July. It’s why Biden is under pressure to complete an accord that will allow for the production of gas in the eastern Mediterranean. It’s obvious that these gas fields will not satisfy the European demand for energy, certainly not immediately – but their development will send a positive signal to a nervous market.

Israel needs American support on its main fronts – against the Palestinians and Iran. In return, it must do what the United States asks of it on other fronts. As Defense Ministry Director General Amir Eshel said in an interview with Maariv, speaking of the sanctions imposed by the Biden administration on Israeli spyware companies: “When the Americans decide something, then with all due respect, Israel has no way of changing it.” That is why Lapid acceded to Biden’s demand, even if he did try to keep the story under wraps.

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