Government votes to advance Lebanon maritime border deal
All ministers except Shaked agree to send US-brokered agreement to Knesset, where it will be reviewed but not voted on before cabinet gives its final approval
Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter
Israeli government ministers voted Wednesday to move to the final stage of the approval process for the maritime border agreement with Lebanon.
The full cabinet gave its blessing to the deal hours after the smaller security cabinet voted to back it. The US-brokered proposal will now go to the Knesset, where lawmakers will have 14 days to review it before the government can give its final approval.
“There is importance and urgency in reaching a maritime agreement between Israel and Lebanon at this time,” according to a summary of the security cabinet meeting by Prime Minister Yair Lapid that ministers approved.
That meeting was attended by Lapid and his senior advisers, Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, Energy Minister Karine Elharrar, and other ministers in the governing coalition.
Before the ministers convened, Bennett announced he would back the deal after a period of indecision, saying it should be approved as soon as possible despite the current government’s interim status, though he offered only tepid support to the agreement itself.
Bennett said that the current deal should not garner either “celebrations of victory, nor cries of despair as if it is a catastrophe.” He argued the deal is “not a historic diplomatic victory, but it is also not a terrible capitulation agreement,” as the opposition has claimed.
“Not everything that is good for Lebanon is bad for Israel,” he said. “There are times when it is possible to reach a positive outcome for both parties.”
An overwhelming majority of cabinet ministers backed the agreement, though there was some opposition, including from Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who earlier abstained when the security cabinet voted to send the deal to the full cabinet.
She reportedly suggested hypocrisy by her fellow ministers during the cabinet meeting, arguing they would have forcefully condemned a vote on the deal shortly before elections if opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu was still premier.
“If Netanyahu brought the same deal two weeks before elections and you were in the opposition, you would burn down the country,” she was quoted as saying by Channel 12 news. “You would call him [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and discuss the destruction of democracy.”
Though a member of Lapid’s governing coalition, Shaked — who took over Bennett’s Yamina party after he handed the premiership to Lapid in June — has expressed her desire to join a future government with parties in the Netanyahu-led right-religious opposition bloc.
During the security cabinet meeting, Israeli defense chiefs voiced their support for the deal and said it did not benefit the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, as Netanyahu and other critics have argued.
“Hezbollah didn’t want a deal with Israel but understood that in light of the domestic political crisis in Lebanon, it had an opportunity to gain points in public opinion,” Mossad chief David Barnea said, according to the Walla news site.
Military chief Aviv Kohavi echoed Barnea in saying the deal was not good for Hezbollah, the report said.
Lapid said he would invite Netanyahu to a security briefing on the deal, according to his office.
It was not clear if Netanyahu — who has spoken vociferously against the deal — will accept the invitation. While Netanyahu rejected such face-to-face briefings when Bennett was prime minister, he met twice with Lapid in August.
On Tuesday morning, Israel announced that it had reached a “historic” agreement with Lebanon over the maritime border between the two countries in gas-rich Mediterranean waters.
Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara asserted Wednesday that the current outgoing government is legally entitled to sign the agreement, despite the proximity of elections and the fact that it is a caretaker government.
She also wrote that although it would be preferable for the government to allow the Knesset the right to approve or reject the deal, it was under no legal obligation to do so, and could suffice in merely providing the Knesset with the details of the agreement.
Opposition lawmakers — along with Shaked — have insisted that the maritime deal should not go through while an interim government is in power and should be brought before the Knesset, which is not currently in session.
Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy, a member of 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.
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.
The government itself is, however, entitled to make the decision as to whether to allow the Knesset to approve the deal or merely provide the Knesset with the details of the agreement, said Baharav-Miara.
On Wednesday morning, the High Court of Justice rejected a request by the Lavi lobbying organization to issue an injunction against the government to prevent it from signing such an agreement given the short period of time before the elections scheduled for November 1.
Lapid said the deal would “strengthen Israel’s security, inject billions into Israel’s economy, and ensure the stability of our northern border.”
Jeremy Sharon and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.