Israeli Security Cabinet OKs Lebanon maritime border deal

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s Cabinet on Wednesday voted in favor of a U.S.-brokered maritime border deal with Lebanon, taking a new step forward toward formal approval of the agreement.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s office announced that the agreement was approved in principle by a “large majority” of Cabinet ministers. The agreement was to be forwarded to the Knesset, or parliament, for a 14-day review period before a final Cabinet vote is to take place.

The Cabinet vote, along with an earlier approval by a smaller group of senior government ministers known as the Security Cabinet, came a day after Lapid announced that Israel agreed to the terms of the landmark deal between the two countries that have formally been in a state of war since 1948.

But the deal to resolve the yearslong maritime border dispute still faces numerous hurdles, including legal and political challenges in Israel. Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Lapid of capitulating to Hezbollah threats to attack Israeli gas assets elsewhere in the Mediterranean and vowed to fight the deal.

Lapid defended the deal in a press conference Wednesday, seeking to reassure the public that the agreement with Lebanon boosts Israel’s security.

“If it is possible to prevent war, it is the job of a responsible government to do so,” Lapid said, arguing that the deal averted the threat of conflict with Hezbollah militants. The Lebanese group had threatened to disrupt Israeli efforts to drill at Karish, a disputed gas field.

“It does not preserve our security, it enhances our security,” Lapid said.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz lashed out at Netanyahu for his criticism of the deal, accusing the former prime minister of seeking to enhance his standing ahead of elections at the country’s expense. The Nov. 1 vote will be Israel’s fifth election in under four years.

“Unfortunately, we are faced with political criticism … that is aimed at hurting the interest of Israel for a political sack of beans,” he said.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday dismissed a petition to freeze the deal because of its approval mere weeks before Israel holds national elections.

Lebanon and Israel both claim around 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea that are home to offshore gas fields. At stake are rights over exploiting those undersea resources.

Under the agreement, the disputed waters would be divided along a line straddling the strategic “Qana” natural gas field. Gas production would be based on the Lebanese side, though Israel would be compensated for any gas extracted from its side of the line.

Lebanon hopes gas exploration will help lift its country out of its spiraling economic crisis. Israel also hopes to exploit gas reserves while also hoping the deal will reduce the risk of war with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group.

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