Analysis |

Israeli Army's Heightened Alert Is All Part of the Negotiations on Lebanon's Maritime Border

Three and a half weeks before Israel's general election, it's very hard to separate the security requirements from the negotiating tactics from the electioneering

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog at a memorial service Thursday for the victims of the Yom Kippur War.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog at a memorial service Thursday for the victims of the Yom Kippur War.Credit: Emil Salman
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Barely a week was enough for Israel's optimism about the chances of signing the maritime border agreement with Lebanon to turn into complete pessimism.

The Lebanese government released a statement Thursday about its reservations with the draft agreement, while Israel's security cabinet met for a long meeting that didn't end in a vote. And Defense Minister Benny Gantz, in an unusual announcement, ordered the military to prepare for “scenarios of escalation in the north, both with offensive and defensive means.” He cited the crisis in the talks.

When U.S. mediator Amos Hochstein presented the compromise proposal in writing to both parties just a week ago, everything looked different. The first responses from Jerusalem and Beirut sounded positive.

But then things got complicated. Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu harshly attacked the government for its supposed surrender to Lebanon and Hezbollah.

It seems Prime Minister Yair Lapid stressed out and was dragged into an unnecessary fight with Netanyahu's Likud party. Instead of trying to move the dispute a little lower down the agenda, Lapid and his people exaggerated and described the agreement as a strategic achievement. They compared it to the Abraham Accords that led to a normalization with the Gulf states and even took a dig at Netanyahu, who didn't do in 10 years what Lapid did in two months.

All this was pretty ridiculous. The cabinet’s decision on the agreement was the right thing to do given the circumstances. In contrast to the claims by the opposition, Israel didn't give up any parts of its “sovereign homeland” and didn't surrender to terror. Israel made a businesslike calculation and decided to pay monetary concessions to remove its offshore natural gas fields from the equation and deny Hezbollah an excuse for a future violent escalation.

Israeli soldiers fixing a fence at Kibbutz Manara, as seen from the Lebanese village of Houla on Friday.Credit: Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP

Still, Lapid and Gantz realized that approval of the agreement could take much longer than they hitherto thought, and that its opponents could still delay it by taking it to the High Court of Justice.

Given all these developments, the government made a U-turn – or maybe just pretended to. On Thursday, one official speaking for Lapid told journalists that Lebanon wants to significantly change the agreement and Lapid rejected this – the Biden administration actually believed that the Lebanese demands were pretty minor. The official said that Lapid won't compromise over Israel’s security and economic interests, even if this means a postponement of the deal.

Israel is determined to produce gas from the Karish offshore rig from the moment it's possible to do so technically, and every threat against the platform from the Lebanese will immediately halt the negotiations. Lapid’s statement was low-key compared to what Gantz said a few hours later. The defense minister’s office announced that the military was prepared for any scenario in the north. The television news shows rushed to report on tensions on the Lebanese border and a higher level of alert.

Three and a half weeks before the general election, it's very hard to separate the security requirements from the negotiating tactics from the electioneering.

Is Gantz truly worried? Are Lapid and Gantz adopting a pessimistic line just to get Beirut to abandon its demands? Or maybe the window of opportunity to sign the deal before the election has closed and the governing coalition is just trying to minimize the damage and get Netanyahu off its back?

Israel's Karish natural gas rig in the Mediterranean.Credit: Energean

Netanyahu hasn't exactly helped calm things down. He has rushed to attribute the Lapid government's reversal to himself and his “colleagues,” claiming that Israel’s security interests were saved. His spokespeople, mentioning prime ministers over the past two decades, went even further and tweeted: “Barak fled Lebanon, [Ehud] Olmert was bombed in Lebanon, Lapid surrendered to Lebanon. We must bring back a strong right wing against Lebanon.”

Even taking into consideration the flexible relationship between Likud electioneering and the facts, a minor record seems to have been broken. This is the same Netanyahu who was afraid to take any steps in southern Lebanon during his first three years in power at the end of the '90s when the price in blood kept rising.

The courageous decision to withdraw from Israel's self-declared security zone was made by Ehud Barak, who had beaten Netanyahu in the 1999 election. And even when Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, he took a cautious (and generally justified) line in Lebanon – very far from his combative rhetoric.

As for the confident Israeli declarations about the start of drilling, remember that this depends on the cooperation of the owner of Karish's production rights, the British-Greek company Energean. The company has been pretty flexible regarding the timeline.

It remains to be seen whether Lapid can convince the company to send its employees to Karish if Hezbollah renews its threats to attack the rig.

For now, it seems the chances of the agreement being signed and approved before the November 1 election have dropped greatly. It's too early to talk about war – it doesn't seem to be in anybody's interest – but without a doubt the anxiety level has risen and the military is taking seriously the possibility of another provocation by Hezbollah near Karish.

The government hasn't come out well in this story, but the opposition hasn't reaped any electoral benefit either – at least not as long as there's no real military friction on the northern border.

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