Is the Israel-Lebanon Maritime Deal as Good as the Abraham Accords?
JNS.org – Let’s hope that both US President Joe Biden and interim Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid are right about the deal they’ve struck with Lebanon. Biden is hailing the pact, which last week seemed to be sunk by Lebanese bargaining tactics and political pressure on Lapid, as a “historic breakthrough.”
In a White House briefing on Tuesday, “senior administration officials” asserted that it was a win-win for both countries. Lapid echoed that claim in a press conference on Wednesday night, promising further that it would “stave off war” with the Hezbollah terrorist group that largely controls Israel’s northern neighbor.
Also applauding the deal was Dan Shapiro, ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration. He disputed the avalanche of criticisms from Israel’s opposition parties and Trump administration officials about its being a one-sided surrender to Hezbollah blackmail and American pressure. According to Shapiro, it was actually more advantageous to Israel than to the Lebanese regime, its Hezbollah string-pullers and their Iranian paymasters.
Some in the Israeli press who are eager to give Lapid a boost in the weeks before the upcoming Nov. 1 Knesset election have also been sounding hosannas about it. According to one piece published in Haaretz, the maritime agreement is “a bigger deal than the 2020 Abraham Accords,” which normalized relations between the Jewish state and four Muslim countries. Another mocked Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu as having received a “masterclass in statesmanship and leadership” from Lapid. That article claimed Netanyahu would have jumped to sign such a deal if only he had been wise enough to make the same concessions as Lapid.
We should discount this as partisan cheerleading in advance of both the vote in Israel and the American midterms. Yet, if the promises about peace, prosperity and security stemming from a new maritime demarcation line stretching out from Israel’s northern coastal border with Lebanon come true, then it truly would be cause for celebration.
Even if Lapid is correct only about the idea that, in giving up rights to one of the natural gas fields to which Israel had a valid and exclusive claim, he has avoided a war with Hezbollah and Iran, perhaps it was worth it. As one of the far-left Haaretz pundits put it while making extravagant claims for the pact, the Abraham Accords didn’t directly save Israeli soldiers from being killed. None of the countries that normalized relations with the Jewish state were poised to launch terrorist raids on Israeli facilities.
Nevertheless, a more sober assessment of the deal that is being rushed through by Lapid in advance of the election, despite the dubious precedent of an interim government making territorial surrenders without a vote by the Israeli people or even by the Knesset, is necessary.
Let’s recall that the only reason any of this happened was not because Israel had determined that appeasement of Lebanon was the only way to avoid a costly and unnecessary war in the immediate future. The impetus for concluding a negotiation that has been going for several years was the Biden administration’s desperation to do something to encourage an increase in production, and a lowering of prices, of oil and gas in the region.
This energy crisis is the result of America’s opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the sanctions on the Vladimir Putin regime that have hurt Western economies, while doing little or no harm to Moscow. At the same time, Washington is also interested in making nice with Hezbollah’s patrons in Tehran. The hope is that the theocrats will then be more inclined to sign a new and even weaker nuclear deal that will allow Iranian oil to flow to the West.
That is why, despite hopes that a confrontation with Hezbollah—which has threatened to attack Israeli facilities in the offshore fields—can be avoided, the comparisons to the Abraham Accords and the paeans to Lapid’s supposed genius are misplaced.
A better analogy for this deal would be the ceasefires and monetary payoffs to Hamas that have mostly served to keep the peace with the terrorists running Gaza in recent years. No one would claim that the practice, carried out by both Netanyahu and the coalition led by Naftali Bennett and Lapid that succeeded him in June 2021, is any sort of a diplomatic triumph.
It’s a payoff, pure and simple, which no one pretends means that Hamas recognizes Israel or the idea of the border separating Gaza from the Jewish state as an international boundary that must be respected.
Israel allows money from Qatar to be funneled into Gaza for Hamas’s use in much the way that storekeepers in city neighborhoods dominated by gangsters pay off one group of criminals in order to ensure that they won’t be robbed or brutalized by the recipients of the bribe or other lawbreakers. It isn’t attractive or honorable, but it’s a way of ensuring short-term peace and quiet from terrorist missile barrages.
Stripped of all the self-congratulatory rhetoric emanating from both Washington and Lapid’s camp, that’s all that Israel appears to be getting here.
The basics involve an Israeli decision to completely surrender the rights to one of the gas fields—Qana—about which Lebanon put forward an utterly bogus claim rather than splitting it. In exchange, Israel is being asked to believe that eventually it will receive from Lebanon a percentage of the Qana revenues. American officials are also assuring Israel that Hezbollah won’t profit from any of it.
No serious person believes either promise will be fulfilled.
Yet Jerusalem is supposed to be comforted by Biden’s promise that the US will guarantee that the agreement is kept, as well as another vacuous pledge about ensuring Israeli security. Nor does it in any way, shape or form constitute a Lebanese recognition of Israel’s right to exist or a stepping stone towards normal relations.
A ceasefire agreement accompanied by an economic payoff may be better than a war, though we shouldn’t assume that Hezbollah’s threats were credible, since both it and Lebanon stand to lose everything they value should they actually provoke an all-out conflict with Israel.
But that shouldn’t be confused with peace.
All of which makes plain that this is the traditional model of Middle East diplomacy predicated on pressure on Israel to appease its foes in exchange for meaningless promises and empty guarantees that it can’t possibly rely on. That is the opposite of the sort of diplomacy that the Trump foreign-policy team pursued—one based on building on the common interests of both Israelis and the Arab states in working together against Iran, and on the benefits of normal relations, including trade and travel.
The formula adopted by the Obama and Biden administrations involves Israel’s giving up tangible assets in exchange for something that is called peace but is nothing of the kind. The Trump formula omitted the Israeli concessions and led to genuine progress towards peace, as well as tangible advantages for all involved.
It remains to be seen whether the best-case scenario for the agreement will help, rather than hurt, Lapid or Israel. Nor is it clear whether it will achieve Biden’s goal of ingratiating an Iranian regime currently preoccupied with crushing its own people’s hopes for an end to theocratic tyranny.
But even if it does temporarily buy quiet with Hezbollah, the notion that it is some kind of diplomatic achievement or in any way comparable to the Abraham Accords isn’t merely an exaggeration. Appeasement and buying protection from criminals only strengthen the forces that are committed to endless war against the existence of the Jewish state. That ultimately makes peace less, rather than more, likely.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.