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After collapse of Lebanon maritime deal, Israel fears Hezbollah attack

Pressured by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and concerned over Hezbollah attacking, Prime Minister Yair Lapid announced Israel will not negotiate its maritime border with Lebanon under threats.
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid makes an opening statement as he chairs the weekly Cabinet meeting,  Jerusalem, Oct. 2, 2022.

Within less than a week, the optimism that had swept through Jerusalem, Beirut and Washington regarding prospects for completing a deal on the Israeli-Lebanese maritime border has turned into discouraging pessimism. On Oct. 6, Defense Minister Benny Gantz instructed the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to prepare for escalation along Israel’s northern borders, including “defense and offense readiness."

Just like that, with no advance warning, the harbingers of peace turned into drums of war. The reason? Not substantive disagreements between the sides, nor a dramatic change in the terms of the emerging deal, but simple, vulgar Middle Eastern politics.

On the Israeli side, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies are waging a campaign of fear mongering and lies designed to exert political pressure on caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid lest he sign an agreement with Lebanon prior to Israel’s Nov. 1 elections.

On the Lebanese side, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is trying to retain his chokehold on the failed Lebanese economy so that he can take credit for allowing the Lebanese government to reach an agreement with Israel and facilitate the country’s access to the gas riches along its shores, or, alternatively, for serving once again as the country’s defender if war with Israel breaks out.

Until about two weeks ago, Israeli intelligence analysts took a relatively sanguine view of Nasrallah’s intentions, with a senior Israeli security official telling Al-Monitor that the Hezbollah leader does not want war and cannot afford a violent round of fighting that would bring the crippled Lebanese state to its knees. The officials argued that Nasrallah was still traumatized by the war with Israel that his forces conducted in 2006 and which sent him into hiding since then. And now all he wants is to issue threats and reap their rewards.

However, that assessment has changed recently. It now determines that Nasrallah is also taking into account the possibility of escalation with Israel. According to that scenario, Nasrallah would prefer two or three days of local clashes along the border rather than an all-out war, but he also knows that under current circumstances, any flareup could deteriorate within seconds to engulf multiple theaters of war with disastrous outcomes for the entire region.

What prompted the setback in the US-mediated contacts just as they were nearing the finish line? Was it because of Hezbollah’s continued threats against Israel’s natural gas extraction project near Lebanon’s border? Or was it the campaign of incitement and deceit that Netanyahu is leading to undermine Lapid’s electoral prospects and bolster his own? Both explanations are probably correct.

Last weekend, Lebanon handed US mediator Amos Hochstein several comments and demands regarding his final draft proposal to both sides. At the same time, Netanyahu’s offense against the agreement reached a climax. He all but accused the Lapid government of treason against the citizens of Israel, of attempts to commit Israel to an agreement without the Knesset’s approval, of transferring sovereign state lands and national treasures to the enemy.

Netanyahu, it seems, does not care that these accusations do not hold water. His goal is to leverage them to block Lapid’s polling momentum and convince voters described as “soft right” that they must not entrust Lapid and his center-left bloc with their future and the affairs of state.

Israeli security and diplomatic sources initially described Lebanon’s comments to Hochstein’s draft as more or less acceptable, being of limited significance and hardly terms that would sink the entire deal. But just days later, following Netanyahu’s no-holds-barred offensive and his success in convincing some voters that Lapid was surrendering to Nasrallah, Lapid was forced to back into the political arena.

Lapid announced that Israel rejects Lebanon’s demands, telling his people that he would not conduct negotiations under pressure although he would be happy to sign a deal with Lebanon under the terms already agreed. In the same breath, however, he announced that Israel’s Karish gas drilling platform adjacent to Lebanon’s economic waters would start its operations immediately, having received a green light from the energy company operating it.

Lapid warned that a repeat of Hezbollah’s launch of drones, whether armed or not, toward the Karish platform similar to its attempted attack on the rig in July (which Israel foiled) would signal an end to the negotiations. The Lebanese, he added, would know who was to blame for the failure to realize the economic bonanza that lies in the gas-rich Mediterranean waters off their coast.

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said that Israel does not have a foreign policy, only a domestic and political one. That saying has proven apt numerous times over the years. The same goes for Lebanon. With both sides thus crippled, the results are potentially disastrous.

Nonetheless, despite the general malaise and pessimism over the negotiations, it is too soon to declare them defunct. The Americans have not had the final word on the matter. Lapid is still willing to ink the deal, although he knows that the chances of that happening before the Nov. 1 elections are negligible.

As far as Lapid is concerned, if the Lebanon deal matures after the voting, he would bring it for approval to the newly elected Knesset. Once its details become known, Lapid said, every Israeli would understand how beneficial it is for Israel. His position is buttressed by the support of all Israel’s security and intelligence agencies for a speedy deal to ease tensions with Lebanon and remove the threat of war. But as evidenced by Netanyahu’s recent years in power, security experts no longer hold much sway. Israelis live in an era of fake reality, engineered consciousness and chaos. It is time they learned to adapt.

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