November 21, 2016 - Early Levant and Israeli fallout from Trump election; the messy meaning of eastern Mediterranean strategic depth

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses how the Levant is reacting as President-elect Trump announces key appointments; the reaction in Israel to Trump’s indication of the far-right direction he plans to follow; the striking exception to the pro-settler sentiments and atmosphere encouraged by the Trump victory; whether the Trump victory atmosphere will affect the upcoming Elor Azaria verdict; a seeming fixation with the Mediterranean and what can be learned from it.

Q. As President-elect Trump announces key appointments, how is the Levant reacting?

A. The most obvious and immediate response among the Syria antagonists appears to be an informal but increasingly widespread recognition that the Assad regime has survived the Syrian revolution. Behind the lead of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, Assad is en route to winning the battle against a wide variety of Islamist and other rebel groups, at least in the western part of the country, “Useful Syria”. This is a far-reaching conclusion with broad regional strategic ramifications. It is based on a number of developments that have immediately followed Trump’s election and his initial appointments.

First, after a Trump-Putin phone conversation and the appointment of a new US national security adviser, General Michael Flynn who has particularly congenial relations with the Russians, Russian and Syrian forces have launched the biggest offensive yet against the rebel stronghold of eastern Aleppo. They are bombing hospitals and other civilian areas in the apparent knowledge that the US will not intervene effectively. Putin presumably heard from Trump the same message Trump sounded during his election campaign: he can work with the Russians, and Assad is not the problem in Syria.

Second, UNDOF, the UN force that patrols the Israel-Syria ceasefire on the Golan, has resumed its mission on the Syrian side of the ceasefire line after a two-year hiatus due to hostile rebel activity there. There are reports that the Jordan-based international coalition that deals with southern Syria is readying some sort of military offensive against a remnant ISIS force there. If anyone thought Israel was considering establishing a security strip in southern Syria to defend itself against hostile Islamists and pro-Assad Hezbollah forces, that no longer appears likely as the implications of Trump’s victory sink in: Assad wins, Iran wins and the Russians win, at least in that part of Syria that is close to Israel. This outcome gives new meaning to Lebanon’s recent choice of a pro-Syrian, pro-Hezbollah president, Michel Aoun, discussed in our Q & A three weeks ago.

 

Q. And the reaction in Israel to Trump’s indication of the far-right direction he plans to follow?

A. The Trump appointees for national security director, CIA director, attorney general and strategic adviser signal that he remains far to the political right where Americans condone the West Bank settlements and are not strongly committed, if at all, to a two-state solution. With one striking exception, the signals have been picked up quickly, and happily, by the right-religious-messianic-settler elements who dominate PM Netanyahu’s coalition.

Nor do these Israeli rightists seem worried about reports of anti-Semitic inclinations among Trump’s appointees. As Yaron London pointed out sardonically in Yediot Aharonot, “If the dislike of Arabs among Trump’s people exceeds their dislike of Jews . . . this is not a bad deal. Trump and his friends see Israel as a forward outpost against the barbarians.”

Accordingly, the pro-settler coalition majority continues to push legislation that would legitimize settlements built on private Palestinian land in the West Bank, despite High Court opposition and warnings from the attorney general that such a move could bring down far-reaching international condemnation and legal action against the Netanyahu government. In parallel, the prime minister is pushing legislation to ban loudspeaker broadcasts of the muezzin call to prayer in Arab towns and villages because of the noise disruption this causes in neighboring Jewish areas, particularly at four-thirty in the morning (the first of five daily calls to prayer).

While the muezzin initiative is understandable in terms of the fight against noise pollution and is invoked here and there even in Muslim countries, in Israel it will only be legitimate if it applies to Jews as well: loud Lubavitcher prayer crusades and Friday Sabbath announcements. But don’t hold your breath: religious parties hold the balance of power in Netanyahu’s government.

 

Q. What’s the striking exception you mentioned above to the pro-settler sentiments and atmosphere encouraged by the Trump victory?

A. Last week, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman surprisingly called for a freeze on settlement construction beyond the West Bank settlement blocs. He presented this as a way of rendering permanent the Bush-Sharon understandings of 2004. He even allowed that the freeze would affect the settlement of Nokdim, where he lives (and where his house is currently being expanded!).

Lieberman indicated that his proposal would be the best way for Israel to begin its relationship with the Trump administration on the right foot. He suggested that he was positioning himself on the “rational right” as opposed to the extreme right represented by others in Netanyahu’s coalition. Does he know something his fellow right-wingers don’t know? Did he badly misread the US and Israeli political maps?

 

Q. There remains the question whether the Trump victory atmosphere will affect the upcoming Elor Azaria verdict. This concerns the court martial of the soldier who, eight months ago, executed a wounded and subdued Palestinian terrorist in Hebron--an act caught on camera by a B’tzelem activist.

A. The military judges will begin deliberating their verdict this week. Let us assume, as we must, that their deliberations are immune to US and Israeli politics and to the broad public campaign launched by the Israeli right to exonerate and justify Azaria’s action. The strong right-wing winds blowing from Washington will undoubtedly affect the Israeli public’s reaction to the verdict.

I got a taste of that reaction this week from a Tel Aviv taxi driver who related to me the results of his own informal survey of passenger opinion in recent weeks regarding the verdict Azaria deserves. “Every religious passenger wants him found innocent,” the driver said. “They all believe that any terrorist should be executed, regardless of the circumstances. Every non-religious passenger wants him found guilty by way of upholding the rule of law, even if for some, circumstances dictate a short sentence and an eventual pardon.”

Even allowing for the usual exaggeration on the part of taxi drivers--the US is not the only increasingly polarized society.

 

Q. Turning from Trump to the Mediterranean depths, last week witnessed the renewal after a five year hiatus of licensing for natural gas exploration off Israel’s Mediterranean coast, along with a major controversy over an Israeli order for three more submarines from Germany. Can we learn something from this seeming fixation with the Mediterranean?

A. Definitely. In the course of the past two decades the eastern Mediterranean basin has begun to provide Israel with a dimension of strategic depth it never had before, in both security and economic terms. And the two are intertwined.

Discoveries of large natural gas deposits under the sea floor in Israel’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) have made Israel an energy power for the first time. For a while, exploitation plans were put on hold due to controversy regarding the way the resultant pie of economic benefits would be divided between the national treasury and the entrepreneurs who spearheaded gas exploration. Those issues have now more or less been resolved, which explains why exploration has been renewed.

Exploiting the gas deposits entails huge infrastructure investment at sea. It also involves close cooperation between Israel and Cyprus, whose EEZ borders Israel’s and also contains gas. There is also the potential of cooperation with Greece and/or Turkey in gas exploitation and delivery to European and Turkish markets. This is one way the Mediterranean is serving as strategic depth for Israel.

Another way involves strategic security. Gas drilling and transport have to be protected deep at sea against possible rocket or commando attack by Lebanon-based Hezbollah or Gaza-based Hamas, thereby dictating a need to expand the Israel Navy and acquire additional deep water missile boats. Even more significantly, Israel has felt obliged to develop what international strategic experts define as a deep-sea second-strike capability: to deter Iran or any other hostile country that develops nuclear weapons. This capability is embodied in a submarine fleet large enough so that at least one vessel can lurk at undetectable depths in Mediterranean waters.

Germany has supplied five highly sophisticated Dolphin-class submarines in recent decades, with a sixth to be delivered in 2019. (Israel has no need for nuclear submarines with their extended staying-power at sea since short distances in the Mediterranean allow for frequent rotation of Israel-based vessels.) These subs are the most expensive items in Israel’s entire order of battle, with each costing over half a billion dollars. Not only German technology (the US builds only nuclear submarines) but German government willingness to seriously lower the price per unit has rendered Germany Israel’s supplier of choice.

Last week the Israeli public learned that, 1) the Netanyahu government wants to order three more submarines for delivery at least ten years from now, whether to replace the oldest three of Israel’s submarine fleet or to augment the fleet to nine was not clear; 2) there has been sharp controversy within high-level Israeli security circles regarding the need for more submarines, going back to the decision to order vessels 4, 5 and 6; 3) there is a strong whiff of conflict of interest issues involving Netanyahu, his lawyer and distant relative David Shimron who is also involved in brokering the sub deal, and the German sub manufacturer, Thyssenkrupp, which has a long history of allegedly bribing potential buyers; and 4) Netanyahu wants to order the subs from Germany, as well as patrol boats to protect the gas installations, now rather than later so Israel can exploit German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s readiness to discount the costs due to her sense of post-Holocaust responsibility for Israel’s strategic security.

The juicier aspects of the submarine controversy, along with the huge sums involved in expansion of gas exploration, can both be subsumed under the messy header of relations among government, millionaire entrepreneurs, and the whiff of corruption. There is a growing call for a parliamentary commission of inquiry to investigate the sub deal’s shadier aspects. But we should not allow this to obfuscate the broader strategic picture: a major portion of Israel’s economy and its security is shifting toward the Mediterranean.

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