Lebanon-Israel deal should be followed by a nonaggression pact

While Lebanon and Israel finally agreed a US-mediated deal on maritime borders in the Mediterranean on Tuesday, the development only came after the Lapid government refused the changes proposed by the Lebanese side.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who is facing a fierce election battle ahead of next month’s vote, did not want to appear to have caved in to American pressure and forgone Israeli interests. However, former US envoy David Schenker, who handled the demarcation dossier under the Trump administration, said in an interview with The Times of Israel that Lebanon had got everything it wanted and Israel had relinquished its rights.

To add to that, former Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is using the demarcation deal to score points against his electoral rivals and show that he is the only leader who can preserve Israel’s rights and security.

However, Israel needs to start extracting gas. On Saturday, it was reported on Israeli television that the country’s security establishment had given the green light to energy company Energean to start extraction tests in the Karish gas field. If the tests were successful, Israel was set to start production regardless of Hezbollah’s warnings.

The two parties, Hezbollah and Israel, were in a tough spot. Both knew that a confrontation would be in no one’s interest. For Hezbollah, the situation today is different from 2006 as there is a strong movement in Lebanon against the group.

And regionally, Hezbollah, which used to be accepted by Arab countries as a resistance movement against Israel, is now labeled as a terrorist organization by the Arab League.

Hence, if Israel struck, Hezbollah’s civilian supporters in the south would not be able to find refuge in other parts of Lebanon.

The homes in Beirut and the mountains that welcomed them in 2006 would not host them today. And, unlike in the aftermath of the 2006 war, the Gulf countries would not donate billions for reconstruction.

On the other hand, Israeli society is as polarized as ever. Though a war would create solidarity and have a rally round the flag effect while it was going on, once it had finished the divisions would reemerge and even become deeper.

Hezbollah had promised that it would attack the rigs if Israel started extracting gas before the borders were demarcated. Opposition groups in Lebanon had been accusing Hezbollah of being unfaithful to its promise of resisting Israel, which the group actually only uses for propaganda, while its real mission is to help Iran roll out its hegemony across the region. If Hezbollah backed down on its threat to Israel, the opposition would have ammunition to further discredit the group.

Meanwhile, Lapid cannot afford to be seen as weak or soft on national security issues. He certainly does not want to appear weaker than Netanyahu. If Hezbollah were to attack, he would have to respond similarly to Ehud Olmert, who likewise did not want to appear weak compared to his predecessor Ariel Sharon so launched a ferocious attack on Lebanon in 2006 after two soldiers were abducted by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid.

Agreeing a demarcation deal does not mean Tel Aviv has forgotten about Hezbollah’s precision missiles

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

This week’s breakthrough relieves the two parties of the burden of proving their strength. This deal was necessary to prevent a clash. However, it also brings the Lebanese and the Israelis closer to each other, which increases the possibility of a future conflict.

Israel will now start extraction at the gas field within its maritime boundary and the Lebanese will start exploration further north. Beirut has already asked French firm TotalEnergies to start exploration “immediately.” Though the two parties want stability to pursue their economic interests, a clash might still occur because security is more important, especially for the Israelis.

On the one hand, Israel wants to start extracting gas and have its rigs secure, but on the other hand there is the issue of Hezbollah’s arsenal. Agreeing a demarcation deal does not mean Tel Aviv has forgotten about the group’s precision missiles. Hence, it is in the interests of both parties, especially Lebanon, to make sure that no clash occurs.

Recent years have shown how the borders shared by two countries that are “technically” at war often result in unintended confrontations. Neither country wants a repeat now that their shared borders have extended from the land to the sea and there are economic interests at stake, thus the need for a deconfliction mechanism. This is why a nonaggression agreement should come after the demarcation deal is ratified.

Such an agreement could be marketed by both parties as a win. Lapid could say that he was able — through negotiations and not war — to guarantee Israel’s security. This would be a point Lapid could score against Netanyahu in the election race. And security is a very salient issue for the Israeli public. Meanwhile, Hezbollah could say that the nonaggression treaty, which would not include normalization, recognition or diplomatic relations, was a necessary step to give TotalEnergies the security guarantees it needed.

Lebanon does not yet have any proven reserves. Exploration is already a risky business. Companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars looking for gas or oil and sometimes they do not find any. They will not add to this business risk with a security risk, where they could be targeted by Israel in case of a confrontation with Hezbollah.

The US mediation should rush to propose a nonaggression deal. After the 1948 war, we had the armistice; after Israel’s Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996, we had the April Understanding; after the 2006 war, we had UN Security Council Resolution 1701. Today, instead of having a war to reach a truce, the Americans, the Israelis and the Lebanese should use the demarcation agreement for a new truce that will ensure stability for both Lebanon and Israel.

• Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

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