Analysis |

It's Too Late for an Israeli U-turn on Lebanon Maritime Agreement

Ultimately, Israel does have something to gain from the maritime deal, whereas an attempt to avoid signing at this stage could increase the likelihood of conflict with Hezbollah ■ With all eyes on Lebanon, it may be time to shift attention to spiking shooting attacks in the West Bank ■ Over seven months since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Russian failures continue to come to light

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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The Karish gas rig this month.
The Karish offshore gas rig.Credit: Energean
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The pending maritime border agreement between Israel and Lebanon holds significant potential for the long term. At the same time, it is scheduled to be signed during an election campaign in Israel, under a transition government – whose very authority to sign it is disputed not just legally, but on the merits and principle of the matter. It is likely that any expectation of the belligerents, the government and the opposition, to conduct a learned debate on the matter with four weeks left till the polls open, is ludicrous. But the true situation here is more complex than the various self-interested positions would indicate.

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The attack by Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu on the position of Prime Minister Yair Lapid was cynical and irresponsible. It is very likely that Netanyahu himself would have signed a similar agreement, had he remained premier. It is not Israel’s security that concerns Netanyahu here, but the political gain he sees to be reaped from the dispute. But none of this changes the fact that the transition government has found itself, or perhaps put itself, into the famous “corrals” – the narrow, inescapable passages that cattle are driven into just before slaughter – that Ariel Sharon used to speak of.

The U.S. administration herded both sides into the corrals and pressured them to sign. It is likely that the proposed agreement is indeed the best solution for all. And yet, we must recall that already embedded within the agreement is a sanction for withdrawal at such a late stage. Should the government accede to Netanyahu’s demands and refrain from signing, or if he himself chooses to annul the agreement should he win the election (as he threatened to do on Sunday), the price may be a conflagration with Hezbollah. And even after that, one must assume, the parties will face the exact same agreement.

Despite the messaging points vigorously recited by government spokesmen in media interviews, the agreement did entail Israeli concessions. The original Israeli position spoke of demarcating the border along the northern line, code-named Line 1. The Lebanese demanded a more southerly line, the 23rd parallel south. The original American compromise proposal spoke of splitting the difference between Line 1 and the 23rd parallel nearly equally, but this was rejected by Beirut.

Later on, in the twilight days of Netanyahu’s government, the Lebanese government presented an even farther-reaching demand: to mark the border at southern latitude 29, which would have given Lebanon a (groundless) claim to part ownership of the Israeli Karish gas deposit. The current American compromise now speaks of a return to the 23rd latitude, with the border hewing to Line 1 for the first five kilometers from shore (which is to say, a more northerly boundary, although this is left as an unofficial recognition of this line by Lebanon). In light of these developments, one may argue that the Lebanese demand regarding latitude 29 was negotiating bait, designed from the start to allow for a compromise on the 23rd latitude. But even if the extreme demand was authentic, it is clear that Israel has conceded more than was discussed in the previous American offer.

On the other hand, and contrary to right-wing claims, it seems that the agreement does not constitute a cession of sovereign Israeli territory. As noted on Twitter by Prof. Eliav Lieblich, a Tel Aviv University expert on international law, no country has sovereignty over its economic waters to begin with. But not for the first time in her tenure, it seems that Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara has left the government legally vulnerable. What was presented as a clear and simple process is getting complicated.

It is possible that a cabinet ratification of the agreement will not suffice, and it will also be brought for approval by the government as a whole. The security establishment is expected to submit a document ahead of the debate, summarizing the projected benefit to Israel from signing the agreement. This position, by the way, is apparently shared by most security principals in recent years, including during Netanyahu’s time in office, who supported the agreement as long as Nasrallah was deprived of an excuse for escalation.

The agreement will be presented to the Knesset and Defense Minister Benny Gantz has also promised that its details would be disclosed to the public. Of Knesset ratification there is no chance – the coalition isn’t even certain that it would have a majority, under the circumstances. In any case, there are still possible delays. Presentation to the Knesset takes two weeks, and can only happen after the deal is ratified by the cabinet or the government. The cabinet debate is scheduled for Thursday, a day after Yom Kippur. Meanwhile, the Energean company, which is entrusted with the Karish field, is hinting that preparation for drilling may be delayed until the end of the month, very close to Election Day.

And yet, it is clear that the right-wing objections are not for solely material reasons. Netanyahu has a clear interest in attacking the professional skills of Baharav-Miara ahead of her possible removal should he win the election, as a first step to stop his trial.

Netanyahu talks tough, but ...

Netanyahu and Likud have other arguments against the agreement. They claim it is a strategic blunder that will come with a heavy economic price tag, and its very signing constitutes a surrender to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. But the agreement actually offers a possible strategic benefit, which is apparently the main justification for signing. Even if it takes a few years, gas drilling in the Lebanese Qana field is supposed to give both the Beirut government and Hezbollah an incentive to keep the peace, in the hopes of generating some economic relief. This is the main issue. As for Netanyahu’s dour economic projections, they seem about as credible and accurate as his claims about the tens of billions, supposedly gifted by the current government to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at an event in Be'er Sheva last month.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Regarding surrender to Hezbollah, as well, it is hard to take advice from Netanyahu at this point. Despite his resolute rhetoric as prime minister, he was very careful over the years to avoid stepping on Nasrallah’s toes. Time and again he chose a policy of restraint and forbearance, even in the face of provocations from the Shi’ite militia. Thus, in the summer of 2020, the IDF refrained from hitting a Hezbollah squad that entered Israeli-held territory in the Har Dov sector and approached the Gladiola outpost. The squad was in the crosshairs of an Israeli attack drone, but the order to the military was to fire only a warning shot, and the squad members fled back into Lebanon. In another incident, in October 2019, Hezbollah fired a missile at an Israeli drone operating over Lebanon. Despite the launch vehicle being identified, the Air Force was denied permission to destroy it.

This policy was directed by Netanyahu himself, often with the concurrence of IDF brass. His willingness to show exceptional flexibility was demonstrated in other incidents as well. This was on prominent display when he approved the German sale of advanced submarines to Egypt under murky circumstances, and in understandings (later abjured by Netanyahu) with the Trump administration over the sale of advanced F-35 aircraft to the United Arab Emirates, pursuant to the signing of normalization accords with Israel.

Yet somehow, whenever an argument develops surrounding the comparison of facts, data or policy, it seems that the opposition leader counts on the public’s short memory, and does not shy away from radical twisting of the past. In the science-fiction comedy “Men in Black,” the protagonists are equipped with memory-deleting devices, designed to make bystanders forget a chance encounter with extraterrestrials. In the same vein, Netanyahu behaves as though convinced that he has managed to erase all memory of past events from the voter’s memory.

The bottom line is that Israel is deep in the corrals and it is seemingly too late to make a U-turn. Israel does have something to gain from signing the agreement, whereas avoiding signing at the last moment (or reneging on it after elections) could increase the danger of conflict with Hezbollah - which is already, like Israel, too invested. This does not mean the government deserves an award for its conduct in negotiations, or that it has reached the end of the corrals just a moment before elections. It also does not offer any guarantee of the end of conflict with Hezbollah. We can assume the organization will find new excuses in the future to maintain the eternal fire of conflict with Israel.

Fire in Jenin, Nablus

Despite the furor surrounding Lebanon this week, we should continue to keep an eye on events in the territories. Gunfire attacks in the Jenin and Nablus regions have accelerated to a daily pace. Now it is not just fire at Israeli forces entering Palestinian habitats, but increased efforts to target Israeli vehicles on the roads. Sunday saw two shooting incidents, first at a passing car and then at settlers demonstrating at the entrance to Nablus. Each incident left one person lightly wounded – a civilian and a soldier, respectively. In another incident, a Palestinian woman from the West Bank stabbed a prison guard in a Negev prison while visiting her inmate brother. On Monday, Egoz commandos shot two Palestinians to death in the Jilazoun refugee camp north of Ramallah. A third Palestinian was severely wounded. The three were driving in a car, and, according to the soldiers, tried to run them over.

Responsibility for the shooting near Nablus was taken by the new militant group in town, “Lion’s Den,” which counts hundreds of youths as members. Nablus is more dangerous than Jenin because unlike the more northern city, it is surrounded by settlements and roads used by Israeli traffic, and it is very difficult to prevent shooting attacks in its environs without imposing a lockdown on the city. The increased danger of driving along these roads at night has yet to penetrate the awareness of the entire settler population, much of which did not experience the terror attacks of the second intifada.

Israeli soldiers confront demonstrators protesting the killing of four Palestinians in the Jenin refugee camp on Wednesday.Credit: NEDAL ESHTAYAH / Anadolu Agency via AFP

In part, reducing casualties is also dependent on responsible behavior by Israeli citizens in the West Bank. The shooting at the demonstration occurred when the demonstrators approached the Palestinian area, which, according to the military, was done in violation of a prior agreement with the field commanders present. Video footage of the incident may have sent the local officials to the top of the newscasts, crouched behind cars and drawing handguns, but along the way a soldier was injured. High alert will be maintained throughout the fall holidays, and yet it is clear to all what might cause another deadly terror attack in the northern West Bank.

Widening extent of Russia’s failures

The news from Ukraine continues to be bad for the Kremlin. Last weekend, against a backdrop of further Ukrainian advances in the east of the country, and complaints by Russian reservists who are forcibly sent to the front with no training or gear, Russian President Vladimir Putin made another menacing speech, parts of which were described by Western observers as hallucinatory. Not only does Putin continue to toss around the possibility of a nuclear strike, he is trying to frame the war as a last cultural and ideological battle between Russia and the decaying, corrupt and dangerous West.

Over seven months since the outbreak of the war, details of the initial Russian failures continue to come to light. A few weeks after the war began, it was reported that the Russians failed utterly at their attempt to land a lightning strike on Kyiv. According to the original plan, elite Russian forces were supposed to seize the city’s airport, capture government buildings, and then arrest and perhaps execute Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. None of this happened, obviously. The Ukrainians were helped by advance warning from Western intelligence services, prepared well, and succeeded in thwarting the Russian plan. Another Russian effort, to land a devastating surprise cyber blow on Ukraine at the start of the campaign, was almost entirely thwarted. IDF officials recently told Haaretz that this, too, seems to have happened thanks to advance Western warning and wise defensive preparation.

Sign for a shelter in Uman, Ukraine.Credit: Sam Sokol

A few interesting details on this matter were revealed in a talk by Lindy Cameron, head of the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre, at the Chatham House Security Conference last month. Cameron said she wishes “to continue to illuminate the dark corners of Russia’s digital campaign,” in addition to “Russia’s physical brutality, which is clear for all to see.” Cameron said, “Since President Putin came to power, we have seen an increasingly aggressive and reckless Russian approach to foreign policy and casual disregard of international law.” The Russians initiated severe cyber attacks on Ukraine, even after forcibly occupying the Crimean peninsula and regions in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Three years later, Russia launched a major cyber offensive that caused damage to Ukraine’s economy and energy sector. The attack also spread to computer systems outside Ukraine, causing damage in the billions of dollars.

In the war itself, Cameron said, Putin launched a disinformation campaign aimed at causing confusion and chaos, while the cyber attacks were meant to harm civilian trust in the Kyiv leadership. But “both efforts have largely failed, thanks to the efforts of Ukrainian and Western digital expertise within governments and the private sector.

“The release of intelligence by the U.K. and our allies,” she continued, “enabled us to get ahead of Putin’s false-flag operations and disinformation narratives, while staunch, professional and effective cyber defenses have disrupted Russia’s clumsy efforts to deploy offensive cyber measures in Ukraine.”

Cameron said, “We haven’t seen ‘cyber Armageddon.’ But that’s not a surprise to cyber professionals, who never expected it. What we have seen is a very significant conflict in cyberspace – probably the most sustained and intensive cyber campaign on record – with the Russian state launching a series of major cyber attacks in support of their illegal invasion in February.

“Prior to the invasion,” Cameron continued, “GRU [Russian military intelligence] launched multiple DDoS [cyber] attacks against Ukrainian government websites and its financial sector. This happened alongside the deployment of Whispergate and HermeticWiper wiper malware. And this was followed on February 24 by the attack against ViaSat, an American commercial satellite internet company. The primary target was the Ukrainian military, but thousands of personal and commercial internet users were affected.”

Supporters of the hacktivist group known as Anonymous. While Ukraine has created a digital cyber resistance to the Russian invasion, others have also vowed to target Russian hackersCredit: Bloomberg

The British cyber expert’s conclusions? “We have not been surprised by the volume of Russian offensive cyber operations, nor have we been surprised by their targeting. It fits our understanding of Russian doctrine – integrating cyber operations alongside real-world offensive actions. Russian cyber forces, from their intelligence and military branches, have been busy launching a huge number of attacks in support of immediate military objectives. While these attacks may not have been apocalyptic in nature, this was not necessarily their purpose. Their actions suggest a clear rationale – to reduce the Ukrainian government’s ability to communicate with its population, impact the Ukrainian financial system at a time of heightened concern, and divert Ukrainian cyber security resources from their other priorities.”

But to Cameron, the most important lesson is in the reasons for the Russian failure. “Try as they might, Russian cyber attacks simply have not had the intended impact. This lack of Russian success could be considered unexpected. However, the reasons for it can be attributed to three elements: impressive Ukrainian cyber defenses, incredible support from industry partners and impressive collaboration between the U.K., U.S., EU, NATO and others. Just as we have seen inspirational and heroic defense by the Ukrainian military on the battlefield, we have seen incredibly impressive defensive cyber operations by Ukrainian cyber security practitioners.” Cameron’s speech shows that the British foresee similar challenges to the West and Eastern European countries yet to come from Russia.

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