Israel must reject a terrible natural gas deal with Hezbollah

Egged on by the Biden administration, Israel’s interim government is on the verge of undermining both the country’s security and its constitution by signing a deal that would give the Iranian puppet state in Lebanon hundreds of miles of territory in the Mediterranean — and the vast reserves of natural gas underneath.

With the Israeli and Lebanese prime ministers in New York last week, American-brokered negotiations are reportedly in their final stages. The final US proposal is expected by the end of the week, and the compromise recipe is simple: Israel accepts all of Lebanon’s territorial claims and redraws its borders.

Under international law, countries have sovereignty over the seabed that extends from their shores and over its underwater resources. Naval disputes between neighboring countries are common, based on differing angles of lines drawn from the coast, and the conflict between Israel and Lebanon dates back at least a decade.

The standard principle in maritime mediation is an equitable split somewhere in the middle, as previous mediation efforts here have suggested. But the deal, which is reportedly set to go through, will require Jerusalem to fully meet Beirut’s claims. Under the proposal, Israel would cede to Lebanon the waters north of so-called “Line 23,” Lebanon’s declared border, which it has officially submitted to the United Nations.

Hezbollah, the Iranian proxy that largely controls Lebanon, has been increasing the pressure for concessions in recent months by threatening to launch rockets at Israel’s pumping stations, which are due to start operating imminently.

It does not advance US strategic interests to propose a deal that would strengthen Hezbollah, a State Department-designated terrorist group that was found guilty in federal court just last week for $110 million in rocket attacks that injured US citizens . But the stakes are even higher for Israel, whose government is repeating the wishful-think diplomacy that led to its most costly historic blunders.

The accord is more akin to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 – which empowered Hamas and brought no peace – than the Camp David Accords. Israel would fully accede to Lebanon’s territorial claims without receiving a peace treaty or even formal national recognition in return. In fact, Beirut does not even recognize the existence of Israel. This isn’t even the failed “land for peace” formula; it is “territory for temporary rest”.

Nor is it about areas that came under Israeli control in 1967. This is not about “occupation” or resistance by the so-called “international community” to Israel’s claimed borders. By agreeing to the surrender of sovereign Israeli territories, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid would remove any ceiling on future demands by Palestinians and others.

Lebanese protesters sail in boats with slogans
Lebanese protesters sail in boats near a border marker buoy between Israel and Lebanon in Mediterranean waters off the southern city of Naqoura on September 4, 2022.

Defenders of the deal posit that granting significant natural gas reserves gives the country “something to lose” in the event of a conflict with Israel. Hezbollah would not want to start a conflict that could so badly damage the Lebanese economy, the reasoning goes. These fantasies ignore the fact that Lebanon’s economy has largely reached its precarious state because Hezbollah. And Iran doesn’t mind seeing its regional puppet states implode, judging by the situation in Iraq, Syria and Yemen alike.

The notion that the gas fields give Lebanon “something to lose” also hinges on the unlikely assumption that Israel would target these fields, operated by a French company, in retaliation for a Hezbollah missile attack on Israeli facilities . In reality, the entire international community — as well as legal and environmental concerns — would hold Israel back.

In the Oslo Accords, Israel took a bankrupt PLO out of Tunisia and gave it a government so it would have “something to lose.” Instead, the PLO launched terrorist attacks that killed thousands of Israelis – and Israel now fears disbanding the organization along with the Palestinian Authority because doing so would lead to instability in Judea and Samaria.

According to media reports, American and Lebanese negotiators have been scrambling this month to strike a deal ahead of Israel’s Nov. 1 elections, which were sparked by the collapse of the current government. Lapid became acting prime minister when Naftali Bennett’s government fell, enjoying a formal tenure of just four months before the election. Given the long history of the dispute, it’s more than a coincidence that the deal will be stamped out during Lapid’s fleeting tenure. With elections just weeks away, Hezbollah attacks on Israel’s new gas plants would be disastrous for Lapid.

On the Israeli side, accepting the agreement would also mean ignoring a number of constitutional restrictions. Israel’s Supreme Court bars lame governments from taking major action, but given its left-leaning leanings, the court is unlikely to intervene if Lapid secures the gas deal. An Israeli constitutional law requires a full Knesset majority and a national referendum on any surrender of sovereign territory. The government plans not to do either formally because it knows it would lose; In fact, the government will reportedly enact the agreement in secret and only later reveal its contents to the public.

Therefore, Israel will pay for this deal not only in fossil fuels and territorial integrity, but also in damage to its democracy itself. But the international audience, holding its pearls about threats to the rule of law, is unlikely to object when such measures are in the name of territorial surrender to terrorist demands.

Eugene Kontorovich is Director of the Center for the Middle East & International Law at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. Israel must reject a terrible natural gas deal with Hezbollah

Rick Schindler

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