Gantz insists Lebanon deal protects Israel as opposition decries ‘capitulation’

Interior minister says she’ll vote against agreement if Knesset not consulted; far-right opposition MK pledges Supreme Court appeal to stop maritime pact

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Yair Lapid, right, and Defense Ministrer Benny Gantz at a state memorial ceremony for the fallen soldiers of the Yom Kippur War, at the military cemetery memorial hall on Mount Herzl, October 6, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Yair Lapid, right, and Defense Ministrer Benny Gantz at a state memorial ceremony for the fallen soldiers of the Yom Kippur War, at the military cemetery memorial hall on Mount Herzl, October 6, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Shortly after Israel announced Tuesday that it had reached a “historic” maritime border agreement with Lebanon, Defense Minister Benny Gantz preempted a torrent of opposition criticism, insisting that the deal did not compromise on the country’s security.

Israel “had not and will not give up on one millimeter of security,” he said in a statement. “We were determined that the agreement would guarantee Israel’s security interests.”

Gantz also pushed back on the idea that Israel had rushed to conclude the deal because of threats from the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.

“The agreement is moving forward despite the threats of the terrorist organization Hezbollah, which tried to sabotage the process — and not because of it,” he continued. “We will continue to meet the security needs in every scenario and provide security to the citizens of Israel.”

Gantz also pledged that the agreement would protect Israel’s economic rights, and said the full terms of the agreement would be presented to the public.

Earlier, Prime Minister Yair Lapid said the deal would “strengthen Israel’s security, inject billions into Israel’s economy and ensure the stability of our northern border.”

Energean’s floating production system (FPSO) at the Karish gas field in the Mediterranean Sea. (Energean)

The deal would put to bed a long-running dispute over some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea, covering the Karish and the Qana gas fields.

On Tuesday morning, Israel received a draft of the agreement and determined that it meets its economic, security and legal demands.

As expected, members of the opposition blasted the deal.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu said the new maritime border deal is “a historic surrender” to Hezbollah.

“This is not a historic deal, this is a historic surrender,” he said in a statement. “A liquidation sale by Lapid.”

“For over a decade, the government I led did not bow to Nasrallah’s threats, and we did not have war. And then came Lapid. Within three months Lapid surrendered fully to all Hezbollah demands.”

Likud MK Nir Barkat said in an interview with 103FM that Lapid’s caretaker government did not have the legitimacy to sign such an agreement.

“This is true capitulation,” said Barkat. “A weak government that is ready to give in. They don’t have a mandate, they don’t have the authority to sign such a contract, this is a caretaker government.”

Likud MK Nir Barkat speaks at a conference in Jerusalem, on August 2, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Pledging to turn to the Supreme Court to stop the deal, far-right Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir tweeted that “Lapid doesn’t have anything to sell, so he is selling the country in order to show an ‘accomplishment’ for the elections.”

But push-back came from within the government as well, with one of its most right-wing members falling in line with some of the criticism voiced by opposition lawmakers.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said in a statement that she will vote against the maritime deal with Lebanon if the government does not bring it to the Knesset for approval.

“Every significant deal in recent history has been brought before the Knesset for approval, out of an understanding that significant issues need to be brought” to parliament. She added that this is even truer for a caretaker government.

Shaked is running in the upcoming election with the Jewish Home party, which is not expected to cross the electoral threshold. If it does though, Shaked says she’d like to be part of a right-wing government along with several of the parties currently sitting in the opposition.

Some experts did welcome the announced deal though. Washington Institute executive director Robert Satloff cheered the news, tweeting that “it may not bring peace but it brings the next best thing — affirmation that, in these hyper-politicized times, compromise in the service of national interest remains possible.”

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy Executive Director Robert Satloff testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, February 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Lapid will convene the security cabinet on Wednesday, followed by a special meeting of the full cabinet to approve the agreement, the Foreign Ministry said.

The Israeli announcement came minutes after Lebanese President Michel Aoun tweeted that “the final version of the offer satisfies Lebanon, meets its demands and preserves its rights to its natural wealth.”

Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite terror group that has threatened Israel over natural gas extraction, agreed to the terms of the deal and considers the negotiations over, Reuters reported.

File: Hezbollah fighters raise their hands as their leader Hassan Nasrallah speaks via a video link during a rally to mark Jerusalem Day or Al-Quds day, in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, April 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

The successful completion of the deal comes in the wake of intense efforts by US mediator Amos Hochstein in recent days to bridge the gaps between the two sides.

“All our demands were met, the changes that we asked for were corrected. We protected Israel’s security interests and are on our way to a historic agreement,” Eyal Hulata, the national security adviser and the lead negotiator at the talks, said in a statement.

His comments came after Lebanon received the updated draft of the US-brokered maritime agreement with Israel, which Beirut’s top negotiator said satisfied its previous concerns and could imminently lead to a “historic deal.”

Hochstein submitted last week what at the time was described as a final proposal aimed at settling a dispute over control of a series of gas fields off the coast of Israel and Lebanon — two countries officially at war and with no recognized maritime boundary between them.

National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata speaks at the annual conference of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism Policy (ICT) at Reichman University in Herzliya on September 15, 2022. (Gilad Kavalerchik)

While details of the agreement have not been formally publicized, officials said that last week’s proposal granted Jerusalem international recognition of its buoy-marked boundary five kilometers (3.1 miles) off the coast of the northern town of Rosh Hanikra, which Israel established in 2000 after withdrawing from southern Lebanon. After that, Israel’s border will follow the southern edge of the disputed area known as Line 23.

Lebanon will enjoy the economic benefits of the area north of Line 23, including the Qana gas field, though a senior Israeli official briefing reporters on the deal said that Jerusalem will receive compensation for giving up rights to Qana, a portion of which will lie in what the agreement recognizes as Israeli waters.

While Jerusalem indicated openness to last week’s proposal, it was swiftly rejected by Lebanon, which reportedly has reservations over officially recognizing the buoy-marked boundary established by Israel. Lapid’s office subsequently made clear that it would not back off from this demand.

Map showing Israel-Lebanon maritime border claims. (AFP News Agency)

Lebanon also is said to have opposed the previous draft’s requirement for Israel to receive a share of the revenues from potential gas produced at Qana.

Last Thursday, Hebrew media reported that the director of the Israel Energy Ministry told ministers at a cabinet meeting that estimates on how much natural gas could be extracted from Qana — the reservoir at the center of a maritime dispute — were far less than initially thought.

Lebanese protesters on a motorboat carry their national flag as they sail in front of an Israeli Navy vessel during a demonstration backing Lebanon’s claims to disputed maritime oil and gas fields, near the southern border town of Naqoura, Lebanon, September 4, 2022. (AP/Mohammed Zaatari)

The revelation appeared to be an attempt by the ministry director to convince wary ministers to get on board with the US-brokered maritime agreement by emphasizing that Israel will only be compromising on a reservoir that may offer a very limited profit while receiving international recognition control over other reservoirs in the Mediterranean that are far more profitable.

After a phone call with Hochstein on Sunday, Aoun expressed optimism on Monday about finalizing a deal “within days.”

“The negotiations went a long way and the gaps were closed over the last week,” he said.

In this Thursday, October 20, 2016, file photo, Christian leader Michel Aoun speaks to journalists after former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri endorsed him for Lebanese president, in Beirut, Lebanon. Lebanon’s parliament has elected Michel Aoun, a former army commander and strong ally of Hezbollah, as president, ending a more than two-year vacuum in the country’s top post. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

On Saturday, Israel’s security establishment gave Energean a green light to start testing the Karish pipeline, with full operations slated to begin within weeks. Israel has insisted it will not wait for a deal, but has only allowed Energean to take preliminary steps thus far.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly threatened that his group will strike Israel if it begins gas exploration at Karish before a maritime agreement is reached. In more recent rounds of talks, Lebanon began claiming ownership of Karish in addition to Qana. The demand has been largely dismissed, with Israel insisting that its control over Karish is non-negotiable.

Israel and Lebanon never agreed to demarcate their border on land either, keeping to a UN-enforced ceasefire “Blue Line” instead, and thus leaving their offshore exclusive economic zone disputed.

The lack of a maritime border had not been a major issue until a decade ago, when a gas discovery bonanza began in the eastern Mediterranean, potentially reshaping the region’s economic future.

Successive US administrations have sought to broker a maritime agreement, with Hochstein leading the talks during the Obama administration as well. The effort was picked up several years later when Donald Trump was president but made little progress.

AFP and Jacob Magid contributed to this report. 

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