Despite the state of optimism that prevailed since the beginning of October, after Lebanon and Israel received a proposal for the demarcation of the two countries’ maritime borders from United States mediator Amos Hochstein—as it seemed the countries were closer than ever to settling the maritime border dispute, according to senior officials in both Lebanon and Israel—this optimism has since declined significantly. After Lebanon submitted comments on the US proposal, Israeli media reported on October 6 that Israel’s government rejected the remarks. This means a decline in the prospects of reaching a settlement soon, especially with growing domestic opposition in Israel to the proposed draft agreement. This could explain why Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz instructed the army to prepare for a possible escalation on the border with Lebanon on October 6.
Division within Israel over the draft maritime agreement with Lebanon has recently escalated. While the current government appears eager to reach a quick deal with Lebanon, right-wing opposition to the draft has mounted:
1. Netanyahu accuses Lapid’s government of submitting to Hezbollah: Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is the loudest voice opposed to the US-sponsored maritime agreement with Lebanon. Netanyahu has accused Prime Minister Yair Lapid of "surrendering to Hezbollah’s threats," describing the deal as "shameful" and saying the proposed agreement cedes "sovereign Israeli territories." But Netanyahu’s criticism has not stopped at the Lapid government. He also criticized the US for its mediation in the maritime dispute, saying it amounts to interference in Israeli elections.
More seriously, Netanyahu threatened he would not be bound by the deal if he manages to form a right-wing government following the elections scheduled for November. This increases pressure on the Lapid government, as Netanyahu believes that such an agreement requires the approval of an 80-member majority of the Knesset, or a popular referendum—which is currently going through an election cycle.
2. Bennett’s reservations about the proposed deal’s terms: In a move that will contribute to obstructing the current government’s efforts to sign the agreement before upcoming elections, Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett expressed reservations about the prospective agreement, noting that it meets all of Lebanon’s demands. Bennett also said "the agreement we are discussing differs from the one known and presented to the Cabinet." In general, Bennett’s reservations appear to stem mainly from the fact that the deal currently on the table does not discuss an agreement on an official maritime border recognized and agreed upon between the two states, but rather only about settling a current situation.
In this regard, Israeli media reported on October 8 that Alternate Prime Minister Bennett wants to resign from his position as soon as possible, because he does not want to be a signatory to the acts of Prime Minister Lapid, such as the agreement with Lebanon.
2. Chief Israeli negotiator resigns: In a notable development that confirms the deep division within Israel over the proposed draft agreement, Israel’s Energy Minister confirmed the resignation of Udi Adiri, the head of the country’s team negotiating with Lebanon over the maritime dispute. The Prime Minister’s Office said "the resignation came in protest of his standing being ignored and the chair of the National Security Council Eyal Hulata’s appointment in charge of the negotiations, and his travel to Washington at the head of a delegation to consult with the American mediator on the draft text of the agreement." But some sources indicated that the real reason Adiri resigned was because he disagrees with the draft agreement.
3. Supreme Court called to consider the agreement: Those rejecting the agreement have tried to call on the Supreme Court and involve it in the current controversy. The court scheduled a session on October 28 to consider an appeal against the maritime border demarcation agreement. Some have argued that submitting the agreement to the court is a necessary condition, since "the current government is not authorized to sign the agreement." Moreover, some see the date set for the court to consider the agreement—a few days before Israel’s elections at the start of November—as weakening the current Israeli government’s ability to conclude the agreement.
Regardless of reports by some Israeli media on October 6, that Israel expressed objection to recent Lebanese comments on the Hochstein draft as containing substantial changes to the draft, the current Israeli government is currently pushing towards reaching an agreement with Lebanon on the demarcation of maritime borders. This is for a number of reasons:
1. Achieving Israel’s economic and security interests: The flank in support of the draft agreement with Lebanon believes that the proposed deal achieves Israel’s economic and security interests. The agreement will allow it to increase Israeli gas exports to Europe with the start of production at the Karish field, in which billions of dollars have been invested. Exploration in the area without an agreement with Lebanon also carries many risks, following Hezbollah’s repeated threats to target Israeli oil platforms in the Karish field. These reached the point of Hezbollah flying three drones over the field in June as a sign of their seriousness. The Israeli army announced it intercepted these drones at the time.
In general, Israel’s government seems eager to achieve the greatest possible degree of security stability in the north, as elections approach and the security situation in the West Bank deteriorates significantly, causing "fatigue" for the Israeli security establishment.
2. Reducing Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon: Some in Israel believe that Lebanon acquiring a gas platform would boost the country’s collapsed economy and bolster the government against Hezbollah’s influence. But these justifications usually face sharp criticism from the Israeli right, which holds that the current deal will strengthen the influence of Hezbollah and Iran in Lebanon. In their view, approving the deal will make Hezbollah look like "the one that forced Israel to submit to the deal" after years of conflict.
3. Israeli government seeking electoral gains: The ongoing debate in Israel over the deal with Lebanon cannot be separated from current electoral jostling between the right-wing camp, led by Netanyahu, and the current government, led by Lapid and Gantz. According to some estimates, the current government is eager to reach an agreement before the elections, to realize Israel’s security and economic interests, and prevent sliding into a war in the north. This would strengthen its electoral gains at the expense of the right-wing camp.
In this regard, Lapid sharply criticized Netanyahu, saying "for 10 years, you have failed to bring about this agreement, at least don’t harm Israel’s security interests and help Hezbollah by sending irresponsible messages. This comes as Public Security Minister Omer Barlev has accused Netanyahu of "behaving exactly like [Hassan] Nasrallah," while Defense Minister Benny Gantz accused Netanyahu of proceeding from "irresponsible political considerations."
4. Deepening relations with the current US administration: Those in Israel supportive of reaching a deal with Lebanon over the disputed maritime areas believe the deal would help deepen relations with the current US administration, which is doing its best to mediate between Lebanon and Israel. This is particularly true given expectations that the Karish field’s production will help increase Israeli gas exports to Europe, which is consistent with Lapid’s promises to participate in efforts to find an alternative to Russian gas for Europe, and that Israel intends to supply 10% of the quantities provided by Russia before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Thus, Israel’s gains—according to the deal’s supporters—will not be limited to the economic and security dimensions alone, but also extend to politics, especially with relations between Tel Aviv and Moscow strained recently.
A Critical Stage
To sum up: Despite multiple incentives pushing the Israeli government towards approving the US draft of the border demarcation agreement with Lebanon, growing domestic pressures and divisions could hinder efforts to reach such a deal before the upcoming November elections. Some opposition currents in Israel may believe that the deal could prompt other parties, such as Hamas or Cyprus, to pressure Tel Aviv to reach deals similar to that being prepared with Lebanon. The deal also appears to have given rise to some divisions within the current Israeli government, regarding its legal aspects.
Perhaps this explains Tel Aviv’s retreat on Thursday, October 6 from its preliminary approval of the draft by US mediator Amos Hochstein after Lebanon submitted remarks on the document. Some Western diplomats said "Lebanon’s comments on the draft deal are constructive and do not include ‘poison pills’ that could prevent an agreement." But some Israeli officials considered them a "blackmail" attempt to achieve more gains.