Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (October 19, 2020) - It’s the Mediterranean, stupid


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. It’s the Mediterranean? And here we thought it was the corona virus. . .

A. The virus is preoccupying Israel, overwhelming its politics and abetting threats to its rule of law. But three dynamics that center on the Mediterranean are currently the focus of a lot of Israel’s strategic attention, and deservedly so. In many ways, the Mediterranean is becoming Israel’s dominant strategic arena.

One of these three dynamics is a scandal involving Israel’s submarine fleet. Many defense experts claim this is the biggest instance of financial malfeasance with security implications that the country has ever experienced. A second dynamic is good news: Lebanon has entered into negotiations with Israel over the two countries’ maritime gas drilling boundary. A third, again bad news, is Turkey’s aggressive neo-Ottoman behavior the length and breadth of the entire eastern Mediterranean, a region Istanbul ruled for centuries.

Q. You can’t provide a Mediterranean link to the corona virus just to launch this discussion?

A. Here’s one. One of the first steps in the current preliminary lifting of Israel’s second lockdown has been permission once again to swim in the Mediterranean. Actually, you could bathe in the sea even before, but only if you could figure out a way to traverse the beach, where you were forbidden to congregate. Yet that was a minor bureaucratic frustration compared to the blatant refusal of entire Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhoods and towns to obey government corona rules regarding schools, mass prayer and weddings.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is boxed-in politically by the Haredim because he needs their support to remain in office and try to evade trial on corruption charges. So he is inclined to look the other way when Haredi rabbis openly defy measures like school closings. That, accordingly, almost guarantees an eventual viral reemergence of covid-19 and a consequent third lockdown within a month or two. The vast majority of Israelis are paying a huge price because the government refuses to isolate the Haredim and enforce corona regulations among them.

But the emerging and destructive political power of Israel’s Haredi cults and their rabbi-gurus is a separate topic, for another time. So is the corruption-haunted fate of Netanyahu’s current coalition.

Q. Back to the Mediterranean. What is the submarine scandal and why is it so important?

A. In recent decades the eastern Mediterranean, which is very deep in some areas and thereby particularly suitable for submarine maneuvers, has become Israel’s strategic depth. There, Israel’s submarine fleet provides a second-strike capability that serves as the ultimate deterrent against existential enemies like Iran. Israel’s submarines, along with additional naval vessels, are made by the German firm Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems. Its production for Israel is generously subsidized by Berlin, which for historical reasons is heavily committed to Israel’s security.

Here two scandals have emerged in the last few years. One involves alleged bribes and payoffs at a very high level of Israel’s security community along with a lawyer close to Netanyahu. A number of people have been charged, pending a hearing. Broadly, the issues at stake are the number of submarines required by the Israel Navy and the timing of submission of orders. Tyssenkrupp also received an order for vessels designed to protect Israel’s Mediterranean gas platforms without a proper international tender procedure.

Submarines are hugely costly and have to be replaced after 30 years of use. Each new submarine comes at the expense of multiple alternative IDF needs. So in terms of the sums involved, this scandal threatens to set new records for corruption. Thus far, Netanyahu has been implicated at the level of bad management but not criminal activity. The entire submarine affair is known as File 3000 (Netanyahu has been indicted on files 1000, 2000 and 4000).

A second scandal involves permission given by Netanyahu to German Chancellor Merkel to sell to Egypt the same model submarine developed by Thyssenkrupp in partnership with the Israel Navy. This decision was made by Netanyahu without consulting the security community, which would prefer that neighboring Arab countries not have access to its submarine secrets. Under the terms of Israel’s commercial agreement with Thyssenkrupp, Israel has a veto over additional sales of its model of submarine. According to the prime minister, his reason for allowing the sale to Egypt is so secret that it cannot be shared with anyone in his government or among the security establishment! Netanyahu’s solo decisions concerning the Egyptian submarines and one of Israel’s submarine orders are without precedent in the annals of Israeli strategic decision-making.

Taken together, the two scandals inform a demand by a large number of senior security community veterans that the government appoint an official commission of inquiry. At a minimum, the veterans argue, Defense Minister Gantz should appoint such a commission in his ministry. A large portion of Israel’s mass weekend demonstrations against Netanyahu and his government feature protests not about corona but about the submarine scandal. Major General Amos Gilad, former director of the Political-Military Affairs Bureau at Israel's Defense Ministry: “the combination of . . . money and bribes with national security considerations is a threat to Israel’s national security.” Ami Ayalon, former commander of the Israel Navy and former head of the General Security Service (Shabak, or Shin Bet): “This is the most serious corruption scandal in Israel’s history.”

Q. And the significance of the Israel-Lebanon maritime gas talks that just commenced at the Rosh HaNikra-Nakura border crossing?

A. Lebanon and Israel have been technically in a state of war since 1948. In recent years, Israel has been in constant conflict with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite armed movement that takes its orders from Iran and that increasingly dominates Lebanon’s governments and security establishment.

Meanwhile, Lebanon as a whole has become a barely functioning country due to the widespread corruption that led to the huge Beirut port explosion last August. The country is broke. It desperately needs to begin exploiting the gas deposits that are reportedly under the Mediterranean floor off its coastline. To do so it needs an agreed maritime border (known as EEZ or exclusive economic zone) with Israel, whose already-developed gas fields are perilously close to the drilling sites claimed by Beirut.

Things are so bad in Lebanon that Hezbollah, which has periodically threatened to attack Israel’s maritime gas infrastructure, has agreed to Lebanese-Israeli talks aimed at resolving a long-festering dispute over the location of the two neighbors’ shared maritime border. The talks are being held under United Nations auspices, though the groundwork was laid by the United States. At stake is an 860 square kilometer ‘pizza slice’ of water. Its thin end begins at the point where the Israel-Lebanon land border reaches the sea; its wide dimension ends where Cyprus’s (undisputed) EEZ begins. Once agreement is reached, Lebanon can start licensing drilling for gas and, it hopes, refilling its empty coffers. The strategic backdrop involves far more than Lebanon’s gas deposits. At the military level, with Hezbollah actively involved on the Lebanese side in support of negotiations, the threat to Israel’s north posed by the Lebanese Shiite militia and its Iranian backers is now largely sidelined by the Lebanon-Israel maritime border talks.

At the diplomatic level, while Lebanon’s agreement to talk with Israel is not understood as a preview to peace talks, it does reflect the positive reaction of many Lebanese, including public remarks by President Michel Aoun and his daughter Claudine, to the precedent of Israel’s normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain. At a minimum, success in defining a Lebanon-Israel maritime border could lead to talks aimed at ironing out a few remaining wrinkles in the two countries’ land border.

Q. So, good news from Lebanon. Does Turkey’s malign activity in the eastern Mediterranean spoil it?

A. It threatens to, and not only for Israel. For starters, Turkey’s aggressive Islamist-leaning President Erdogan refuses to recognize the EEZs of both Cyprus and Greece. Turkey is currently conducting seismic surveys in their waters with the goal of unilaterally claiming sub-sea gas deposits there.

Then too, Turkey is providing massive military aid, including drones and mercenaries recruited in Syria, to Libya’s Tripoli-based Islamist-leaning government. (Russia is doing the same with Tripoli’s rival for power, Libya’s Benghazi-based government.) The Tripoli government has rewarded Ankara by agreeing to an energy-fueled EEZ demarcation linking Libya on the southern Mediterranean shore with Turkey on the north. On the map these two tip-to-tip giant pizza slices cut off the entire eastern Mediterranean and steal maritime rights from Egypt, Greece and Cyprus. Like Russia, Turkey appears to be setting up a strategic Mediterranean base on the Libya coast. Everyone--the West, the Arabs--is protesting these shenanigans but so far no one is effectively acting against them. Meanwhile Turkey is issuing Turkish passports to Hamas activists from Gaza and the West Bank. It is converting famous Istanbul church-museums back into mosques. It has purchased a light aircraft carrier from Spain. It is setting up more bases in Sudan, Djibouti and Qatar. It has staked out a claim to portions of northern Syria.

All these activities and more are backed by convoluted but thus far successful efforts by Turkey’s President Erdogan to balance Turkey’s international relations and avoid conflict. He holds frequent phone conversations with US President Trump, who makes no secret of favoring autocrats. With Moscow he “shares” Libya and Syria while buying sophisticated Russian weaponry. As for NATO and the EU, Ankara is always ready to mollify Germany or France with yet another conference. Even Israel, in many ways a military and energy ally of Cyprus and Greece, is going out of its way to avoid direct friction with Turkey. Yet at some point, with Turkey having angered so many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean actors, something will explode. Look for real conflict over energy resources, fueled by Turkey, somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean.

Q. Bottom line?

A. With regard to both Lebanon’s forthcoming stance on its maritime border and, in contrast, Turkey’s regional imperialism, it is important to note the role played since 2011 by the Arab revolutions and civil wars. Thus, with Syria (and Hezbollah) radically weakened, and confronted with the UAE’s bold example, Beirut feels less intimidated by Damascus, hence can enter talks with Israel.

On the other hand, it is precisely this same Arab weakness that Turkey exploits in Libya and Syria. And Ankara’s threat to let many hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees cross its borders into Europe helps deter the European Union and NATO from responding more firmly to its trumped-up maritime claims in the eastern Mediterranean.

And Israel’s submarine scandal? It’s both Mediterranean and Levantine by any standard.

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