In a bad neighborhood: arms, morals and naked interests - Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (October 26, 2020)


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. Israel is accused of selling to Azerbaijan the attack drones that appear to have provided a critical advantage in Baku’s war with Armenia. The Armenians, who like the Jews were victims of genocide a few generations ago, feel betrayed. How do you explain Israel’s position?

A. This is where cold and even cynical strategic considerations supersede even the legacy of genocide. Armenia, flanked by hostile Turkey to the west and ethnically-Turkic Azerbaijan to the east, looks to its southern neighbor, Iran, for support. It hosts Russian forces on its soil. Its claim to the Ngorno Karabach enclave in Azerbaijan is ethnically sound but legally problematic. There is an Azeri war against Armenians on Azeri-claimed territory but there is no viable threat to commit another genocide against them. In contrast, Azerbaijan is cool toward Russia and particularly toward neighboring Iran. In return for sophisticated weaponry and oil purchases, Azerbaijan reportedly offers Israel air and electronic-intelligence access to Iran. Tehran, lest we forget, regularly reconfirms its resolve to eliminate Israel and is striving militarily to threaten Israel’s northern borders from Syria and Lebanon. For Israel, this issue is existential even before we mention Tehran’s nuclear designs, which Mssrs. Trump and Netanyahu have clumsily abetted in recent years. Armenia has for decades been cool toward Israel due to the latter’s strategic relations first with Turkey and more recently with Azerbaijan. Yerevan did not send an ambassador to Jerusalem until this year (and promptly called him home when Baku’s drones attacked). Israelis with a Holocaust conscience fully recognize that from 1915 to 1921 Ottoman Turkey committed genocide against Armenians. Israeli governments regularly sidestep the issue due to blatant considerations of realpolitik that are hardly exclusive to Jerusalem.

Q. So this is ugly and perhaps immoral, but a fact of life.

A. This is certainly not a matter of Israeli party politics and strategic values. A Meretz- or Labor-led Israeli government, confronting the Iranian threat, would almost certainly have entered into the same sorts of deals with Baku. Conversely, Netanyahu with his right-wing messianic partners has cultivated close strategic ties with leftist leaders in Greece and Cyprus to counter shared threats from Turkey, which used to be Israel’s ally. Here are two parallel examples, one old and one new, of cynical Israeli priorities worthy of Machiavelli but generally understood as situated somewhere between ‘existential in nature’ and the Godfather’s ‘strictly business’. Decades ago Israel sold arms to apartheid South Africa. It justified this to itself with reference to certain nuclear-related advantages that Pretoria supplied, at a time when the existential threats to Israel came not from Iran but from neighboring Arab countries. There was also a large and potentially vulnerable Jewish community in South Africa that ostensibly required friendly inter-state relations--a factor cited to justify similar problematic arms relationships at the time in Latin America. Israelis and many others in Africa and elsewhere who were familiar with Pretoria’s apartheid regime found the entire relationship repugnant. Today, post-apartheid, events have passed it by: Israel’s strategic security relations with Africa are thriving. Much more recently, Israel’s close security ties with China have been cited as abetting Beijing’s oppression of its Turkic-Muslim minority in Sinjiang province. The complaints come from human rights groups and governments in the West. Notably, they do not come from Israel’s Arab neighbors or even from fellow Turkic Muslims in places like Azerbaijan, who need no lessons in cynicism. Until now, when attacks on China’s human rights record reached the floor of the United Nations General Assembly, Israel has tended to keep quiet in deference to Beijing. Yet China regularly votes in the UN to condemn Israel. Last week, Israel’s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan informed his Chinese counterpart that Israel would henceforth join the chorus of condemnation regarding Sinjiang and Hong Kong unless China stopped automatically condemning Israel in every UN vote. Prediction: This won’t last long. China will condemn Israel at the UN and Israel will fall into line. There is too much at stake at the strategic level. (To be fair, in some of those UN votes, e.g., regarding settlements, Israel deserves condemnation. But in others, for example in UN human rights forums dominated by stellar rights performers like Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iran and China itself, Israel does not.)

Q. Last week, you discussed a different dimension of Israel’s arms relationships, the submarine scandal. It seemingly involved crony capitalism and corruption at the highest level in Jerusalem (Netanyahu) and Tel Aviv (the Defense Ministry). Now we have a scandal over F-35 sales to the UAE which apparently also involves Netanyahu.

A. Once again, Netanyahu has concealed a problematic arms deal from the security establishment--in this case a triangular deal involving Washington instead of Berlin. Supply by the US of the F-35 stealth attack aircraft and additional highly sophisticated weaponry was, it now emerges, the UAE’s precondition for normalization with Israel. Netanyahu, it turns out, agreed up front. When the truth about the UAE and the F-35 emerged, he lied and called allegations of his involvement “fake news”. In recent weeks, Defense Minister Gantz went to Washington and skillfully negotiated generous compensation to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) despite the deal. Netanyahu cynically pretended that the Gantz trip was where the UAE’s F-35 deal actually began. True, the UAE is friendly, never has fought a war with Israel, and seems genuinely interested in something approaching a security alliance with Israel. Note, however, that there are two significant strategic links here between Israeli arms for Azerbaijan and US arms for the UAE: the Iranian threat and the arms/financial payoff for Israel. Note, too, that there is an important difference. Arms deals with Azerbaijan were made after careful and comprehensive analysis by the Israeli security establishment. In sharp contrast, the arms aspect of the UAE normalization deal, like the submarine deal, was decided by Netanyahu, solo. He bypassed his own security establishment. That is stupid, technically illegal, and alarming.

Q. Now, we are informed, there is an emerging normalization deal with Sudan. Similar solo decision-making?

A. Apparently not. A lot of international, regional and Israeli actors were involved here. As with the UAE, there is a Washington angle and a Saudi green light, in this case stemming from Khartoum’s need for funds that will enable it to buy its way out of Washington’s list of terrorism-supporting states by compensating al-Qaeda victims. Nor, so far at least, does there appear to be a weapons-supply angle involving either Washington or Jerusalem. Sudan differs in two ways from the UAE and Bahrain and from additional Arab states like Oman and Djibouti that are rumored to be about to agree to normalize relations with Israel. First, its record of hostility toward Israel. And second, its inherent instability. Actually, Khartoum and Jerusalem got off on the right foot. Between 1956, when Sudan gained independence from the UK and Egypt, and a 1958 coup d’etat, Sudan was part of a brief strategic alliance with Israel and Ethiopia, the “Southern Triangle” (the parallel Northern Triangle comprised Israel, Iran and Turkey). There ensued a series of coups d’etat in Khartoum. Sudan defined itself as Arab and Islamic rather than African. In ensuing decades it sent a military contingent to Egypt to fight Israel. There followed alliances with Iran and al-Qaeda and arms smuggling against Israel that drew Israeli reprisal raids. Khartoum’s leaders were accused by the international community of egregious human rights violations against the country’s many minorities. Non-Muslim South Sudan seceded, helped by Israel. Today, Sudan is poverty stricken and highly unstable. The prime minister of its interim government insists its parliament has to ratify its deal with Israel to make it official, yet Sudan does not have a parliament. The leader of its Islamists, Sadiq al-Mahdi, is presiding over demonstrations of Israel-flag-burning. (In 2005 al-Mahdi told me in a long one-on-one conversation, “we in the North need the southern element as a check against Islamic fanaticism. The South [now South Sudan] needs the North as a check against tribal fanaticism.” He was right about both. But as an Islamist he is no friend of Israel.) Israel’s objectives regarding Sudan are modest: repatriation of thousands of Sudanese refugees currently in south Tel Aviv; overflight rights on the way to Latin America. Israel had better hurry. This is a very unstable country.

Q. Your bottom line?

A. At the military level, the critical advantage delivered in the Caucasus war by Azerbaijani attack and suicide drones--regardless of who sold them to Baku--is a significant strategic military development. Analysts of future wars, take note. Still at the regional-military level, for the moment F-35s for Abu Dhabi may not pose a threat to Israel. But additional F-35s and parallel sophisticated American weapons for additional Arab countries may indeed pose a threat. Netanyahu and Trump have set a dangerous precedent that could sometime soon get out of control. This brings us to Israel’s domestic-political problem. Here the issue is not Israel-Azerbaijan arms deals, which incidentally began many years ago. The issue is not Armenia, Israel and genocide, a dilemma that began long before Netanyahu but which definitely is not an existential problem for anyone at this point in time. Nor is the issue the Trump-brokered Israel-Arab normalization deals, which all-and-all are a good thing. The problem is an elected leader, Netanyahu, who makes key grand strategic decisions regarding weaponry that are not only bad but that ignore and bypass Israel’s security community. The problem is the Likud party and the cult-like ultra-Orthodox who give Netanyahu a blank check. The problem is an out-of-control autocratic Trump abetting an out-of-control autocratic Bibi on issues ranging from F-35s to covid-19. Netanyahu is behaving like the autocrats he likes dealing with: Aliyev in Azerbaijan, MbZ in Abu Dhabi and MbS in Saudi Arabia, Sisi in Egypt, Trump in Washington. Yesterday Bibi’s solo decisions touched on strategic submarines. Today the issue is F-35s. And tomorrow?

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