July 10, 2017 - Modi, Putin, Kim Jong-un

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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 the strategic significance of the first-ever official visit to Israel by the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi; Putin and Trump's ceasefire agreement in southwest Syria; and whether North Korea's nuclear and missile program is an Israeli concern.

 

Q. Last week witnessed a first-ever official visit to Israel by the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi. What is the strategic significance of the visit for Israel?

A. The visit dovetailed nicely with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s grand strategy of leveraging the global Islamist threat as a means of expanding Israel’s international security and economic links while downgrading the Palestinian issue. Modi, like Netanyahu, Putin and a host of others, is an ultra-nationalist who draws support from his public by playing up the Islamist threat. In Modi’s case, the threat emanates primarily from Pakistan and his public is Hindu.

Netanyahu and Modi discussed strategic cooperation between their countries in an era when a strong US presence in western Asia can no longer be counted on. This was the case in the Obama era when the US sought to avoid new Middle East entanglements and it appears likely to be the case in the Trump era with its neo-isolationist America-first policies. One upshot is the growing sphere of defense and cyber cooperation between the two countries, which they have declared will now gravitate toward co-production arrangements.

Modi felt free to visit Israel even without paying a parallel visit to the Palestinian Authority or to an Arab country. Nor did he harangue Israel about a two-state solution during his visit. This is but one more indication of the Palestinians’ current difficulty, in an age of Arab chaos and revolution, in attracting international attention.

Until recently, Indian-Israeli strategic relations were hard to contemplate. Until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, India under socialist governments tilted toward the anti-Israel non-aligned camp and the Arab bloc. Modi’s ultra-nationalist Hindu politics of recent years have moved him closer to Israel. Yet India still maintains a close energy relationship with Iran. Netanyahu had to bite his tongue to avoid complaining too strongly to Modi about India’s strange inability to complete its investigation of apparent Iranian involvement in a terrorist attack on Israeli embassy officials in New Delhi six years ago.

In a precedent, Netanyahu accompanied Modi throughout the entire 48 hour visit--a clear sign of the importance the Israeli prime minister attributes to the relationship. From Netanyahu’s standpoint, India fits into the “new periphery” he is cultivating among countries bordering on the world of militant Islam that have an interest in sharing intelligence and buying military technologies from Israel. Additional candidates that have recently exchanged high-level visits with Israel include Cyprus and Greece (concerned with Turkey), Azerbaijan (borders on Iran), and a host of countries located in Africa south of the Sahel.

(Next week Netanyahu visits another ally, Hungary’s ultra-nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban. An anti-Semitic smear plastered all over Budapest and directed against American Jewish civil society-builder George Soros, who is very active in Hungary, was the target of Israeli protests until Netanyahu remembered that, first, he will soon be Orban’s guest, and second, Soros supports liberal causes that both Orban and Netanyahu don’t like.)

All the leaders of these countries are, like Modi, prepared to avoid preaching to Israel about the Palestinian issue. Economic and strategic cooperation with them is undoubtedly beneficial. But when push comes to shove, they are doubtful allies in Israel’s confrontation with the primary threats to its security back home. All still vote against Israel and for the Palestinians in United Nations bodies like UNESCO. And none--absolutely none--are able to change Israel’s increasingly one-state Palestinian reality on the ground. Nor, for that matter, can they solve Israel’s problem with the growing Iranian and Iranian-proxy threat on its border with Syria.

Finally, in the particular case of India, Netanyahu’s new friend faces so many problems back home--a faltering economy, reaction against Hindu ultra-nationalism by India’s huge Muslim minority--that Israel should approach the India partnership with a degree of caution.

 

Q. Apropos Iran’s presence in Syria, Putin and Trump seem to have taken a step toward dealing with it when they met in Hamburg last week : a ceasefire agreement in southwest Syria.

A. The agreement took effect on Sunday. Ostensibly, any reduction in the fighting anywhere in Syria is a good thing. If it means an end to the “overflow” of regime-rebel exchanges of fire into the Israeli Golan, that also is a good thing. Israel was able to influence the conditions of the ceasefire, which was negotiated between Russia, the US and Jordan, through its close strategic relations with all three countries and its close coordination with relatively “moderate” rebels on the Syrian Golan.

But this is where the good news ends and the doubts begin. And they are many.

First of all, based on Israel’s experience thus far, where there are Russians in Syria there are also Iranians and Hezbollah. Russia and Iran are allies in Syria. And Hezbollah is a proxy force subservient to Iran. Russia has announced that its military police units will supervise the ceasefire. This could place them across the border fence from Israel, meaning Russia is now Israel’s neighbor not only in the skies over Syria but on the ground as well. According to some reports, Russia’s military police units are in fact combat units, some of them Chechen Muslim, whose designation Moscow has simply changed.

All that may be manageable, but will the Iranians be far behind? Their presence and that of Hezbollah and additional Iranian Shiite proxy forces (Afghanis, Iraqis, Pakistanis) anywhere near the Israeli Golan is a red line and a virtual casus belli for Israel.

If that threatens to happen, whom does Israel complain to? President Trump appears to have agreed to this ceasefire in his talk with Putin without insisting on an American military presence. This is the same Trump who, astoundingly but not surprisingly, accepted Putin’s denial of Russian cyber-involvement in the US presidential election and then agreed to discuss with him the establishment of a joint cyber-security unit to police future elections.

Thus far the Russians have accommodated Israel’s interests in Syria while maintaining their alliance with Iran. What happens when the two interests clash on Israel’s northern border? In recent months, Israel has contemplated the need for a “de-confliction zone” of its own across the Syria border, patrolled by friendly Syrian rebel forces it has cultivated. PM Netanyahu recently spoke of the need to keep unfriendly forces like Iran and Hezbollah 50 kms away from the border. Will the Russians help? Hinder?

Will Trump involve US forces, or has he effectively ceded Syria to Moscow? Will he be any more effective at braking Iran’s drive deep into Syria than he has been in braking North Korea’s drive to deploy nuclear-tipped ICBMs capable of targeting the US? Paradoxically, Israel may soon develop an interest in the US reducing sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine issue, if as a quid pro quo this in turn provides Washington with greater leverage and greater interest in looking after Israel’s (and Jordan’s) interests in Syria.

Finally, will this ceasefire be as short-lived as almost every single one of its predecessors in Syria?

 

Q. You mentioned North Korea and its nuclear and missile program. Is this at all an Israeli concern?

A. It is definitely an Israeli concern. Pyongyang has for decades been a supplier of missiles and missile technology to Arab countries and Iran. At least one North Korean-piloted MiG took part in the 1973 Yom Kippur War on the Egyptian side (and was reportedly shot down by Egyptian friendly fire). A decade ago, Pyongyang tried to build Syria a weapons-capable nuclear reactor. Israel has to be concerned that the July 4 North Korean launch of an ICBM could be quickly translated into technology transfer to Iran.

That is one aspect of North Korea’s military technology drive. A second and equally important aspect concerns the global response, meaning, essentially, Washington’s response. Iran is watching closely, and is certain to draw strategic conclusions regarding its own missile and frozen nuclear program.

There is growing evidence that Pyongyang has reached a point in its nuclear and military program where it judges it can deter an American attack on its military infrastructure. Not only can it attack neighboring South Korea and Japan with its primitive nuclear weapons, but its artillery threatens millions of inhabitants of Seoul, the South Korean capital. The meaning of this North Korean threat against its neighbors is growing recognition by Washington that it cannot eliminate North Korea’s nuclear program at a defensible and manageable price, hence must prepare to coexist with a nuclear Pyongyang and perhaps, over the long term, search for means to moderate or change the Kim Jong-un regime.

If this assessment is correct, Iran has every reason to seek at some point in the future to bring its own nuclear program to a similar stage of deterrence. It could try to do this secretly now, or more overtly once the ten-year hiatus of the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA, expires, meaning beginning eight years from now.

Accordingly, Israel has to be concerned over the failure of a long succession of US administrations, now apparently including President Trump, to stop the North Korean nuclear and missile programs.

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