Israel tells U.S. it will sign border deal with Lebanon this week – report

The move depends on the Supreme Court rejecting current petitions for a Knesset vote or national referendum before the agreement can be signed.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Israel has told the U.S. that it may be ready to sign a maritime border agreement with Lebanon as soon as Wednesday or Thursday, the Hizbollah-backed Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar reported Saturday.

The two-week review period granted to the Knesset ends this Wednesday. The Cabinet is slated to then convene to ratify the deal, and send a representative to Lebanon for a signing ceremony. It will take place in Naqoura, the border town where much of the negotiations took place.

National Security Adviser Eyal Haluta will reportedly be the one to sign the agreement. He would do so with Amos Hochstein, the American negotiator, and not the Lebanese, as Beirut continues its steadfast refused to deal with Israel directly in any way, even at this culmination of the negotiating process.

Only after Haluta signs the deal in one room will a Lebanese representative then sign a separate version with Hochstein in a different room, said the paper, which noted that President Michel Aoun has not yet decided who will ink the deal for his government.

According to the report, U.N. observers will also be present for the ceremony. The two sides will then hand in separate letters to the international body which contains a commitment not to break the agreement.

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An internal legal hurdle must also be cleared before any signing ceremony can be held, as the Supreme Court began hearing Thursday three petitions by those opposing the deal.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid had refused the Opposition’s demand to send the agreement for an actual Knesset vote on the matter, which could easily fail as the government currently does not have a majority in the legislature.

In this he relied on the opinion of Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who had ruled that the only legal requirement was the nonbinding review, although she had recommended a vote since this was an issue of settling a border of the state.

The Lavi organization, a right-wing group that bills itself as a fighter for proper governance in Israel, has argued that a Knesset vote is obligatory. There is “a binding custom to bring important diplomatic agreements to the Knesset for approval when there is an interim government with a democratic deficit,” lawyer Yitzhak Bam told the court.

In addition, the Kohelet Policy Forum, a Conservative think tank, is arguing that Israel has a basic law requiring a national referendum on any border deal where the state will be giving up territory. Besides ceding hundreds of kilometers of disputed sea, the agreement includes Israel yielding several kilometers of its actual territorial waters.

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MK Itamar Ben-Gvir (Religious Zionism) alleged that the deal, which he said was bad for Israel, was not being made for national security reasons as the government claimed, but rather was politically motivated, pushed now to help the parties in the outgoing government in next week’s national elections. He claimed that the negotiations had been stalled but were revived after the Knesset had voted to disband.

The court’s three justices questioned the basis for each of the claims, as did the state attorney, who also briefed the judges behind closed doors with classified material that backed the government’s claim that the national security and economic needs to approve the deal was urgent enough that it should be signed before the November 1 elections.

The court is expected to render its decision before the elections. If it agrees with the government, the latest date the maritime agreement would then be signed would be next Monday.