Israel must hold referendum on potential Lebanon maritime deal, says non-profit

Kohelet Policy Forum files High Court petition claiming government would break constitutional law after it says it would not hold national vote if agreement reached

An Israeli Sa'ar Class 5 Corvette guards the Energean floating production, storage and offloading vessel at the Karish gas field, in footage published by the military on July 2, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)
An Israeli Sa'ar Class 5 Corvette guards the Energean floating production, storage and offloading vessel at the Karish gas field, in footage published by the military on July 2, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

A conservative think tank filed a petition to the High Court of Justice on Wednesday after the government said it would not submit a deal with Lebanon solving a maritime border dispute to a national referendum in the event such an understanding is reached.

The non-profit Kohelet Policy Forum filed the petition to prevent the cabinet from unilaterally approving an accord, claiming that the government would be in violation of Israel’s Basic Laws — which have special constitutional status — if it did not submit the question of ceding maritime territory to Lebanon as part of an agreement to a public vote.

“This is a dramatic decision from every perspective — security, economic, and policy. It is very problematic that the government without a Knesset would accept it in a period such as this contrary to the Basic Law: Referendum,” Kohelet posted in a tweet, in reference to the government’s caretaker capacity in the lead up to the November 1 election.

The group said it filed a petition two weeks ago which was rejected since it did not give the government ample time to respond.

Israel and Lebanon have been engaged for over a year in rare US-brokered talks aimed at resolving a dispute over rights to offshore fields thought to hold riches of natural gas, and the sides are said to be nearing an agreement.

Both countries claim some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon also claims that the Karish gas field is in disputed territory under ongoing maritime border negotiations, while Israel says it lies within its internationally recognized economic waters.

Lebanon’s caretaker Energy Minister Walid Fayad (R) meets with US Senior Advisor for Energy Security Amos Hochstein (C) in the presence of US ambassador Dorothy Shea, in Beirut on July 31, 2022. (Anwar AMRO / AFP)

According to a law passed in 2014, any plan to cede territory within the borders of the State of Israel must either be approved by the Knesset with a majority of 61 votes and then by the public at a referendum or passed by the legislative body by a supermajority of 80 votes.

An unnamed Lebanese official was quoted by Russia’s state-run Sputnik news outlet on Sunday saying Beirut was still waiting for Israel’s answer to its last offer but was optimistic there would be a deal next month.

“We are very close to reaching an agreement on the demarcation of the maritime border with Israel,” the unnamed Lebanese official was quoted by the semi-official Russian outlet as saying.

“The border demarcation issue will be concluded in September,” the source said.

US envoy to the deal, Amos Hochstein, said earlier this month that he was “optimistic” about the deal, and Lebanon’s foreign minister late last month said he was more bullish than ever about negotiations.

A senior Israeli official on Wednesday told AFP there was no contradiction over engaging in talks with Lebanon, where the Hezbollah terror group is a powerful force, while opposing a nuclear deal with Iran in part due to its ties with the group.

Israel supports the possibility of foreign firms exploiting offshore reserves for Lebanon, providing a way out of Beirut’s economic crisis, but the official did not foresee gas revenues reaching Hezbollah.

“I see no reason for having any confrontation with Hezbollah on this,” the official said.

The group has upped its rhetoric in recent months as Israel and Lebanon have engaged in talks. It remains vociferously opposed to any concessions with Israel.

A drone which the Israeli military says was launched by the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group, is seen shortly before being intercpted by an Israeli fighter jet over the Mediterranean Sea, July 2, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has consistently threatened to target Israeli offshore installations.

In July, the IDF said it downed three Hezbollah drones launched at a gas rig in one of the contested fields.

The dispute over the maritime border is more than a decade old. In 2012, Lebanon rejected an American proposal to receive 550 square kilometers (212 square miles), or almost two-thirds of the area, while Israel would have received the remaining third. The disputed area covers the Karish gas field and the Qana field.

Lebanon and Israel last fought a war in 2006, have no diplomatic relations, and are separated by an UN-patrolled ceasefire line.

They resumed negotiations over their maritime frontier in 2020 but the process was stalled by Beirut’s claim that the map used by the UN in the talks needed modifying.

Lebanon badly needs an agreement over the maritime border in the Mediterranean as it hopes to exploit offshore gas reserves to try and alleviate what has become the worst economic crisis in its modern history.

Israel maintains sovereignty over the Karish gas field and has been seeking to develop the field as it tries to position itself as a natural gas supplier to Europe.

In June, Israel, Egypt, and the European Union signed a memorandum of understanding in Cairo that will see Israel export its natural gas to the bloc for the first time.

Ash Obel contributed to this report.

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