Maritime border deal with Lebanon to be presented for Knesset review on Wednesday

Speaker says will convene plenum during holiday recess so MKs can look over US-brokered agreement ‘as soon as possible,’ as Lapid seeks to approve it via cabinet vote

Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy at the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy at the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The US-brokered agreement to demarcate a maritime border between Israel and Lebanon will come up for Knesset review on Wednesday, the parliament’s chairman announced amid opposition fury over the deal.

Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy, a member of Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, said he would convene the plenum so the deal can be swiftly reviewed by MKs.

He cited “the importance of the matter” and a request from the cabinet secretary for the Knesset to meet over the recess for the Jewish High Holidays.

This, Levy said, will “allow Knesset members to review its details as soon as possible, immediately after the cabinet discusses it.”

Lapid is seeking to approve the deal via cabinet vote only and has rebuffed arguments from the opposition and within the coalition that the agreement must pass a vote in the Knesset or be submitted for a referendum since it transfers sovereign territory.

The opposition has also cited the upcoming elections and current government’s caretaker role.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid flies over the Karish gas field on July 19, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked — who has expressed her desire to join a future government with many of the opposition parties — said earlier Tuesday that she will vote against the deal 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 said. She added that this is even truer for a caretaker government.

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.

Lapid has emphasized that the deal only pertains to Israel’s offshore exclusive economic zone, not sovereign territory.

However, the High Court of Justice ruled on Tuesday that the government must respond by 10 a.m. the next morning to a petition by the conservative Kohelet policy forum and Lavi organization for citizens’ rights, which calls for an interim injunction on the agreement.

The petition charges that the government intends to approve the deal “with a lack of authority and during an election.”

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara advised the government earlier Tuesday that she would be able to defend the deal before the court if it is either submitted to the Knesset for a 14-day review alongside a cabinet vote, or submitted for full parliamentary approval.

Later Tuesday, she said it was preferable the deal be voted on by the Knesset, but that there was no legal impediment to only putting it up for parliamentary review.

Regarding the proximity to the elections, a statement from her office said senior security officials and other figures presented her “a factual picture that there is decisive importance to advancing the deal, and that this time a temporary and unique window has been opened for this.”

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara speaks at Tel Aviv Univerisity, September 28, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)

If the deal were to progress to a full plenum vote, it could face challenges beyond questions surrounding its legality, with the opposition charging that it compromises Israel’s security and vowing to vote against it, likely in an attempt to deprive the coalition of a victory in the lead up to the elections.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu has charged the agreement is “a historic surrender” to the Hezbollah terror group, and “a liquidation sale by Lapid.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Lapid have both insisted that the agreement guarantees Israel’s security interests, and Reuters reported that even Hezbollah agreed to the terms of the deal and considers the negotiations over.

Ayman Odeh, chair of the Arab Hadash-Ta’al joint slate, which does not support either the pro-Netanyahu bloc or the current coalition, said on Tuesday that he would support the deal.

A senior Israeli official familiar with the negotiations told reporters in a Tuesday statement that the agreement will see the buoy-marked borderline established by Israel in 2000 five kilometers (3.1 miles) off the coast of the northern town of Rosh Hanikra recognized by the sides as an agreed-upon status quo. Lebanon will not be allowed to make counter-claims regarding that boundary unless a new maritime agreement is reached between the parties.

At the end of the buoys, Israel’s border will follow the southern edge of the disputed area known as Line 23, the senior Israeli official said.

Lebanon will enjoy the economic benefits of the area north of Line 23, including the Qana gas field, though the senior Israeli official said Jerusalem will receive monetary compensation for a certain percentage of revenue from the Qana, part of which lies south of Line 23. The exact compensation will be decided in negotiations with the French drilling company TotalEnergies.

Israel will also receive a letter of guarantee from the US stressing Washington’s commitment to Israel’s security and economic rights in case Hezbollah or another party fails to respect the deal, according to the senior Israeli official, who said the agreement will contribute to border stability and reduce Lebanon’s dependence on Iranian funds.

Lapid said earlier Tuesday that the “historic” agreement would “strengthen Israel’s security, inject billions into Israel’s economy, and ensure the stability of our northern border.”

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

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