Thanks to US mediation, and after months of negotiations, Israel and Lebanon are now on the way to signing an historic agreement on their maritime border. The deal will likely be closed in the coming days. But with the Knesset (Israeli parliament) elections just around the corner, any government move – large or small – becomes political ammunition.
While Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid argues that this is a “deal that strengthens Israel’s security” and that the proposal currently under discussion “protects the full interests of the State of Israel,” Opposition Leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that Lapid has “surrendered to the threats” of Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s pro-Iranian Hezbollah terror group. “He’s giving Hezbollah a sovereign part of the State of Israel with a huge gas reservoir that belongs to the citizens of Israel. Lapid has no mandate to hand over sovereign territory to an enemy state – this is an illegal snatch,” Netanyahu charged.
So far, so good. An almost inevitable political battle less than one month before the elections – the coalition welcomes, the opposition attacks and everything is according to the rules of the political game. But without going into the agreement’s details, which have not yet been published, both Lapid and Netanyahu are making mistakes that affect Israeli democracy.
On the one hand, Lapid’s approach has been sound and efficient. The negotiations are being conducted away from the public eye, and even now, when the signing of the agreement is very close, the exact details of the maritime border division are still unknown to the public. Why is this good? Because if the negotiations were conducted openly in the media, it would push Nasrallah to sharpen his rhetoric even more than he already has. The agreement’s details are still secret, allowing him to slowly walk back from the limb he went out on with his threats to Israel over the outcome of the negotiations. The most striking proof of this is his conciliatory speech on Saturday evening.
But Lapid has also made a mistake. Since the agreement is not a question of handing over a territory, but rather an economic resource in disputed territory, it does not require a referendum under Israeli law. Traditionally, agreements of this type are submitted to the Knesset for approval – even though the law does not require it. Lapid refrained from doing so because, naturally, at this time, the Knesset would turn the agreement into a political battle that could harm Israel’s economic and security interests. And yet, at the same time, Lapid must present the emerging agreement to the people’s representatives in parliament.
But, Opposition Leader Netanyahu is also making a mistake, the historical consequences of which could be very severe. His announcement Sunday that, if he forms the next government, his government will not honor the agreement is problematic, to say the least. International agreements bind countries, no matter who signed them. Thus, Netanyahu was forced to respect the Oslo agreements, which then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin signed. A government cannot decide which past agreements it will honor and which it will discard. Such behavior would damage Israel’s international status.
The bottom line of all this is that agreements should be respected, but their details should also be presented to the people’s elected officials.