Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (July 6, 2020) - The threat of regional turmoil at a time of corona


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.

Q. West Bank annexation appears to have been swept off the Israeli agenda by an angry second wave of corona. Who and what are to blame?

A. Before we start blaming people and institutions, we need to start by blaming covid-19. This virus is unpredictable; it repeatedly defies rational predictions and empirical deductions based on cumulative experience with earlier corona viruses. In intelligence terms it is the equivalent of a revolutionary situation, in which expert analysts are best advised to explain to us where we stand right now, but not try to predict where we will be tomorrow.

In Israel as in the United States, covid-19 was ‘supposed’ to return in a second wave in the fall and winter, not the summer. It was ‘supposed’ to wither in the summer heat. Both predictions proved false. Then again, it was not ‘supposed’ to spread so easily among youth. And yet its severity among youth is so negligible that they don’t take it seriously.

Until there is an effective vaccine for universal use, this virus has to be understood as a very clever and dangerous enemy. But what if it proves impossible to create a viable vaccine? What if science is beaten by the diabolical covid-19 and our only recourse is a radical and permanent revision of our way of life? Is our absolute confidence in the emergence of an effective inoculation yet not another display of our hubris?

Q. So much for blaming an unpredictable virus. The US certainly has President Trump to blame with his anti-mask, anti-science arrogance. Same for Brazil and Bolsonaro. But in Israel, after it managed the first wave so well?

A. The buck has to stop with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Alternate Prime Minister Gantz, and the unwieldy and dysfunctional political structure they maneuvered the country into. And since Gantz is a novice but Netanyahu a wily veteran, we have to look to Netanyahu with his hang-ups.

Yedioth Aharonot columnist Nachum Barnea summed up Netanyahu’s preoccupations nicely on July 6: “Mandelblit [the attorney general who denied Netanyahu free legal financing from abroad and was consequently accused of fomenting a coup]. And the millions Netanyahu demands from the state and from his billionaire friend. And his sado-maso relations with Gantz. And musing about new elections. Everything but corona.”

Just a few weeks ago Netanyahu was dismantling all the improvised health structures that beat back the pandemic from March through May. He was wishing the public “have a good time”. Now his government is hastily recalling the IDF for testing and enforcement and the Shabak (Shin Bet, General Security Service) for contact tracing, and reintroducing persistent service announcements about masks and social distancing. Beaches and restaurants that were opened and drew totally undisciplined crowds are being reined in and threatened with closure. Yeshivas and Haredi neighborhoods are again becoming breeding grounds for covid-19.

Worst of all, the economic consequences for hundreds of thousands of newly unemployed Israelis are growing and threatening social stability. Yet the Finance Ministry and social services are impossibly slow and mismanaged.

Netanyahu and his sycophantic political allies seem arrogantly impervious to the rising public protest...

Q. And while all this is going on, you’re suggesting we should worry about regional turmoil...

A. We had better worry, because it can’t be ignored.

Let’s start with corona. The entire Middle East is inundated with covid-19 this summer. From Iran to Oman, from Saudi Arabia to Israel, the numbers are way up and the health infrastructure is threatened. The World Health Organization warns that the region right now is at a “critical point” with over one million sick--more than the entire region registered throughout all of the past four months. In countries like Iran and Oman, the health system is on the verge of collapse. This can have very far-reaching social and political consequences for the region.

Then too, Lebanon on Israel’s northern border is in such bad shape economically and politically that, according to Joseph Bahout, incoming head of the Issam Fares Institute in Beirut, it is “in danger of Somalization”, or fragmentation into separate quasi-political fiefdoms. That kind of instability would directly threaten Israel to Lebanon’s south.

Part of Lebanon’s problem is the Shiite Hezbollah movement, whose Islamist leadership controls much of Lebanese governance yet ultimately takes its marching orders from Iran, a thousand miles away. And Iran is encountering Israeli resistance to its aggressive behavior not only in Syria--a “campaign between wars” confrontation we have become accustomed to--but most recently in the cyber sphere. It began with an Iranian cyber attack on Israel’s drinking water infrastructure more than a month ago. It failed. The response was several days paralysis of a major Iranian port on the Indian Ocean. More recently, mysterious fires have broken out in sensitive Iranian nuclear installations. Since this is apparently cyber warfare that leaves no traces, neither Iran nor Israel has taken credit for any of this. Placing the blame is guesswork.

Yet this cyber confrontation is apparently not over. It could escalate as cyber warfare or as some alternative, more traditional form of warfare. Despite the Trump administration’s biting economic sanctions, Iran continues its military buildup: unmanned submarines in the Persian Gulf, a spy satellite, many many missiles, and of course its nuclear program

Q. Lebanon and Iran are to Israel’s north and east. And looking west? South?

A. Here it is Turkey that is fomenting trouble in multiple arenas. None of Turkey’s power-plays and machinations focus directly on Israel, but all spell trouble regionally and for allies of Israel, hence ultimately affect Israel.

In the Mediterranean, Turkey is trying forcibly to carve out maritime gas drilling sites that infringe on those legally claimed by Cyprus, Greece and Egypt--all energy partners of Israel. Sooner or later, we are liable to witness genuine naval and air confrontations with Turkish forces in the Mediterranean arena. A few years ago, Israeli aircraft were involved in buzzing Turkish drilling ships in Cypriot waters on behalf of Cyprus, which is manifestly incapable of defending itself on its own. With Turkey escalating this energy confrontation, the situation could get worse. In Libya, Ankara has allied itself with one of two competing forces in a civil war that is dragging in more and more regional and international players. Currently, Turkey is deploying in western Libya its own forces and Syrian mercenary units that it recruits with financial incentives. These forces confront Russian mercenaries and aircraft from the United Arab Emirates based in eastern Libya. The Russians too have recruited Syrian fighters. The survivors of Syria’s near-decade of civil war are so desperate they will fight for anyone who pays. And because eastern Libya borders on Egypt, the Sissi regime in Cairo is threatening to get involved.

At stake in Libya are not just its energy resources. Both Russia and Turkey want a foothold on the southern shores of the Mediterranean. Israel, take note. As first the Obama administration and now the Trump administration signal a general US military withdrawal from the Middle East, the eastern Mediterranean appears increasingly to be up for grabs.

The UAE, incidentally, is confronting Turkey militarily not only in Libya but in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean as well. The UAE is taking possession of Yemen’s island of Socotra and sponsoring southern Yemeni separatists. The UAE and Turkey confront one another on the coasts of Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti where they are building naval bases. These areas may be thousands of kilometers south of Eilat, but they potentially control Israel’s southern shipping lanes.

If there was any doubt in the reader’s mind, Israel is on the side of the UAE. Turkey these days represents Muslim Brotherhood-style Islam. It is still a big trading partner for Israel, but the UAE’s “Little Sparta” power projection is far preferable and less threatening in Israeli eyes than President Erdogan’s ambitious neo-Ottoman Islamist antics to Israel’s west and south.

Note that Erdogan is expanding elsewhere, too. In northern Syria, Ankara is carving out an enclave. In Qatar it has a sizeable military contingent not far from the UAE.

And even in Jerusalem. By sponsoring Muslim cultural projects in East Jerusalem and bringing Islamist pilgrims to the Temple Mount, Turkey is challenging not only Israel’s interests but those of Jordan and the Palestinian Waqf or Islamic charitable endowment. The latter more or less coordinate with Israel; Turkey does not.

Q. You mentioned Egypt as a potential combatant in Libya. Only in Libya?

A. No. Egypt’s water conflict with Ethiopia is escalating by the day as Addis Abeba defiantly threatens to begin filling the reservoir behind its huge new Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. That river, which joins the White Nile in Khartoum in Sudan on their way north, provides around 80 percent of Egypt’s Nile water supply.

And the Nile supplies 97 percent of Egypt’s water. It is the lifeline of more than 100 million Egyptians. Ethiopia claims the right to dam the Blue Nile to provide power for more than 100 million Ethiopians. All attempts to mediate the growing tension between Egypt and Ethiopia, including by the Trump administration, have failed.

Despite the lack of a common border--Sudan separates Egypt from Ethiopia--Cairo has threatened to take military action to ensure its water supply. It has built a new naval port in the Red Sea, improving its access to Ethiopian waters. Yet Egypt is also concerned with its Libya front. And it has not succeeded in ridding the northern Sinai Peninsula of the Islamic State. Distant Ethiopia would prove a far more formidable military objective. Egypt is almost looking at a perfect storm of military and environmental challenges.

Israel is on friendly strategic terms with both Cairo and Addis Abeba. Recently it has even warmed relations with Khartoum. In an ideal world, free of self-inflicted problems with covid-19, corruption and annexation, Jerusalem could offer to mediate. But not these days.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Israel’s preoccupation with covid-19 and Netanyahu’s preoccupation with his corruption trial have not pushed just annexation aside. Almost everywhere you look in the broader region, troubles are brewing and demanding attention. Iran is number one. But Turkey’s behavior should also be of concern, and not just to Athens, Nicosia, Cairo and Abu Dhabi.

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