Less than meets the eye, and not likely to last. David Wurmser gave that assessment of the Israeli-Lebanese maritime agreement the same day it was being signed.
Wurmser, senior analyst and director of the Project on Global Antisemitism and the U.S.-Israel Relationship at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Security Policy and former Middle East advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, said the new arrangement was hardly the Israeli-Lebanese breakthrough some proponents presented it as. He reminded participants in an October 27 Jewish Policy Center webinar of two previous “breakthroughs”:
*The 1949 Rhodes Agreement, also mediated by the United States, demarcated borders and anticipated future negotiations—but Lebanon never recognized Israel.
*The 1983 Israel-Lebanon peace treaty, following Israel’s expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organization from its northern neighbor, did establish diplomatic relations. Syria quickly quashed that new peace, even though it was “a treaty under international law,” he noted.
“The agreement signed today” did not feature “an Arab leader sitting down with and Israeli leader” but was rather an arrangement based on letters between the United States and Israel and the United States and Lebanon The Lebanese “refused to sign in the same room with the Israelis,” Wurmser said.
He questioned the assertion made by agreement proponents that it increases Israel’s deterrence against war provoked by Hezbollah, the most powerful and best-armed movement in Lebanese politics. Backers claim that anticipated revenue from the yet-to-be-developed Sidon-Kana offshore natural gas field just north of the Karish field, the latter in now-acknowledged Israeli waters, will prevent aggression by the Iranian-supported “Party of God.”
“We’ve just witnessed the success of that [line of reasoning] with Germany and Russia” in the Russian war against Ukraine, Wurmser said. Berlin’s bet that tying Moscow to Western Europe through the latter’s reliance on Russian energy supplies lost to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s ideology and strategic perspective.
It’s Not About Lebanon
In any case, “Lebanon has no agency. …Occupied by Syria and Iran via Hezbollah” the country lacks capability to work in its own interests, Wurmser said. So, deterrence is unlikely to operate against an actor with no agency, he added. That applies to Hezbollah as well, if Iran—which founded, funds, arms and trains Hezbollah—decides to threaten Israel’s offshore gas fields. “I’ve never seen economics drive politics in the Middle East, ever,” Wurmser said. “Except in Israel,” with its more European and North American outlook.
“It disturbs me that Israel has now allowed major funding of a terrorist organization [Hezbollah]” that could use the money to Beirut from gas sales to advance Iran’s aims, Wurmser said. In fact, the new agreement “provides incentive for Hezbollah and Iran to sabotage the gas development” by using threats of disruption as leverage for concessions from Israel and the United States.
Backing the agreement, “Israel’s defense establishment says ‘we were at the edge of war’” with Hezbollah, Wurmser noted. While not advocating Israel open hostilities, he pointed out that “this is the worst time for Hezbollah to go to war” since it has sent between 4,000 and 8,000 gunmen to Iran to help the mullahs suppress widespread anti-regime demonstrations. (Estimates of armed Hezbollah members vary widely; in 2017 Janes put the figure at 25,000 regulars plus approximately the same number of reserves.)
“If it is about deterrence … Israel just destroyed it,” Wurmser maintained, by essentially paying protection money to its adversaries. As for the U.S. guarantee of Israel’s security said to be part of the exchange of letters, he believes Americans’ support for the Jewish state rests on the fact “that Israel carries its own weight” and is an ally to an American military stretched thin by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s growing threat against Taiwan.
Israel’s willingness to chart its own course, as when then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposed the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal in a 2015 address to Congress, told Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates they might be able to rely on Israel, Wurmser said. This helped open the door to the Abraham Accords, he added.
The agreement with Lebanon may be undermining that perception, Wurmser said. It also hinders Israel’s ability to become a natural gas exporting hub, with lines connecting from Gulf Arab producers and Israel to Europe. Instead, it seems to assume Israel will continue to rely on natural gas exports via Egypt and Jordan rather than develop its own infrastructure.