Israeli justice pushes for the signing of the maritime agreement with Lebanon

The US mediator Amos Hochstein says that the parties will sign the agreement next Thursday, just five days before the elections in Israel
Israel Líbano gas

AP/MARC ISRAEL SELLEM  -   Aerial view of the foundation platform of the Leviathan natural gas field in the Mediterranean Sea, about 130 kilometres (81 miles) west of the coast of the Israeli city of Haifa

The Israeli judiciary is on track to give final approval to the historic maritime demarcation agreement signed in early October by the Israeli and Lebanese governments. The Israeli High Court of Justice, the highest court in the country after the Supreme Court, on Sunday "unanimously" rejected the four appeals filed to overturn a legal text proposed by US mediator Amos Hochstein, which sets the boundary between the two countries in the adjacent waters of the eastern Mediterranean.

The ruling confirms that the agreement does not need to pass through the Knesset (parliament) to be approved, but can go ahead only with the approval of the acting executive headed by Yair Lapid, according to a statement issued by the court of first instance. It is unusual for a caretaker cabinet to push through such treaties, let alone in the midst of an election campaign, but Hebrew law allows for exceptions as long as there is "an essential public need", as can be argued in this scenario.

"Israeli law does not normally require Knesset approval before signing and ratifying international agreements. However, the rules of procedure of the House and the government require that they be submitted to parliament two weeks before final approval by the executive," explains Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor Yuval Shany at The Israel Democracy Institute. This requirement can be waived for reasons of confidentiality or urgency, he notes.

PHOTO/DALATI NOHRA vía AP  -   Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati, right, meets with U.S. energy envoy Amos Hochstein at the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Sept. 9, 2022

"At first glance, it seems that an agreement on the delimitation of maritime borders, whose main relevance is economic, is substantially different from major foreign policy agreements that have been submitted to the Knesset for approval in the past," Shany reflects. Previous cases of maritime demarcations, agreed with Cyprus in 2010 and Jordan in 1996, were not submitted for parliamentary approval. Therefore, the ruling seems sound.

The four appeals were filed by the Kohelet Policy Forum, a liberal-conservative NGO that advised the various cabinets of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the ultra-nationalist educational organisation Lavi, and the radical MP Itamar Ben-Gvir, candidate of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, which is running in coalition with the Religious Zionist Party in the November 1 elections.

The Kohelet Political Forum asked the Supreme Court to consider holding a nationwide referendum before giving the green light to the agreement. The platform's request rests on the legal argument that Israel's waters have the same legal status as land. However, the agreement refers to the exclusive economic zone, an area that, according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, does not confer full sovereignty. The legal basis for this position is inconsistent, as recognised by Chief Justice Esther Hayut, who dismissed the appeal.

The Lavi organisation described the agreement as "a capitulation to Hezbollah that endangered the national security of the State of Israel". This argument is being repeated ad nauseam by the now opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, as he seeks a parliamentary majority that would give him power again after the elections. The visible head of the right-wing Likud party tried to make a profit at the polls by harshly attacking his rival and current head of government, Yair Lapid.

AFP/EMMANUEL DUNAND  -   Acting prime minister Yair Lapid

Polls indicate that Netanyahu is close to the 61 seats that make up the majority in the Knesset, but he has been losing ground in recent weeks to the third and final plaintiff in the agreement, Itamar Ben-Gvir. The far-right MP, who considers himself the political heir of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the banned Kach movement for his openly racist stances, could win 14 seats in the House, 10 more than Labour.

Ben-Gvir's support is expected to be decisive for a parliamentary majority. For this reason, the opposition leader acknowledged on Sunday that "of course" he could occupy a ministry in his future government after a few weeks in which he has sought to distance himself from the lawyer by profession. On the other hand, the fragmentation of the Arab Islamist sector complicates the majority for Lapid. The race is still tight.

However, the interim Prime Minister is seeking to speed up at all costs the final approval of an agreement that was reached last week after more than a decade of tough negotiations. Diplomat Amos Hochstein, the US mediator in the dispute, said on Sunday that the parties would sign off on Thursday at a ceremony that could take place in the symbolic Lebanese town of Naqoura, which borders Israel. It is the headquarters of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

Americas Coordinator: José Antonio Sierra.