Israel consolidates its regional alliances

Italian training jet

Italian training jet

A couple of events this past week demonstrate how Israel is strengthening its alliances in the Mediterranean basin.

The Israeli Air Force announced that it will be buying its new training jets from Italy, upsetting contender South Korea in the process.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense has decided to procure the Italian M-346 military jet to replace the antiquated Skyhawk as its training aircraft, according to IsraelDefense.

The IAF selected the M-346 over the South Korean S-50 Golden Eagle supersonic advanced trainer. South Korea had protested in recent weeks that Israel was biased in favor of the Italian plane because of political reasons, not professional considerations.

…Italy told Israel’s defense establishment that if the IAF selected the Italian plane, its air force will consider buying two to four early-warning aircraft produced by Israel Aerospace Industries. “The Italian proposal was surprising due to its scope, which may reach as much as $1 billion,” reported IsraelDefense.

The South Korean government also offered to procure Israeli military systems in large quantities, and representatives of the South Korean defense ministry visited Israel and discussed cooperation and possibilities.

Aharon Lapidot in Israel Hayom warns that Seoul will not quickly forgive or forget this perceived slight.

If you scratch beneath the surface of the Italian Aermacchi M-346 training jet, soon to be the Israel Air Force’s new training jet, you will easily find the Russian Yak-130 (it was a joint Italian-Russian project). And if you scratch beneath the surface of the South Korean KAI T-50, which lost the deal with Israel to the Italian plane, you will find an airplane very similar to the beloved U.S. made F-16, as Lockheed Martin was a partner in the T-50’s development. This leads to an interesting point: a Russian plane beat out its American counterpart for the IAF’s heart — making this purchase an unprecedented event.

Having said that, I’d like to point out a few things, without, heaven forbid, spoiling the celebration. Firstly, regarding the M-346’s compatibility with the IAF’s needs: At its core the T-50 was developed with the same operational outlook as the F-16, which is currently the most common airplane in the IAF. It is a single-engine, supersonic jet (the only such training jet in the world), and its flight is very similar to the U.S. airplane. Simple logic dictates that it’s preferable to have a training airplane that can best simulate the “real” aircraft the pilots will eventually fly, no?

Secondly, the South Koreans were very interested in making this deal. Even though they never produced an official contract, they committed to reciprocal purchases that were worth just as much as the Italian offer. Past experience has shown that the South Koreans like to buy Israeli products: They purchased the Green Pine Arrow missile defense radar system, and among different models of the T-50 there are actually installed Israeli systems from Elta, Elibt and other Israeli firms. As far as the Israeli industry is concerned, developing close ties with the South Korean industry is of immense strategic value. Geopolitically speaking as well, an ally like South Korea is of utmost importance to the state of Israel.

Finally, in terms of price there is no significant disparity between the two proposed deals. Why, then, were the Italians chosen? Some say it is because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a promise to then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. It’s a possibility. But Berlusconi is already gone and forgotten, while the South Koreans remain, and will not forget this insult for years to come.

If Seoul take this decision as an insult then I feel they are over-dramatizing the situation. Someone had to lose out on the deal after all.  Perhaps it is Italy’s geographic position in the Mediterranean, its proximity to Israel, plus its connection to Europe that was the main motivation for the choice, rather than any assumed promise to Berlusconi. It could not have been an easy choice.

Meanwhile, in a historic first, Prime Minister Netanyahu travelled to Cyprus and met with President Christofias and various other government officials, signing cooperation agreements on energy and search and rescue efforts.

On the first visit of an Israeli prime minister to Cyprus on Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the flight to the island country took 45 minutes and 63 years.

Cyprus is apparently a strategic part of Netanyahu’s plan to create an alliance to counter Turkey’s influence and activities in the region, and Netanyahu — who was accompanied by National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau — was welcomed warmly in Nicosia. The prime minister held meetings with Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias and other government officials, focusing on cooperation in the areas of search and rescue efforts, and energy, but Israel’s sour relations with Turkey loomed in the background of the talks.

Israel and Cyprus are both currently exploring oil resources off the southern coast of the Island, and Israeli energy company Delek, working together with U.S. company Noble Energy, has recently discovered an additional estimated 5 trillion to 8 trillion cubic feet (140 billion to 230 billion cubic meters) of natural gas in Israel’s exclusive Mediterranean Sea economic zone, after discovering 16 trillion cubic feet (453 billion cubic meters) in the Leviathan gas field, which lies some 60 km (40 miles) off Cyprus shores in its exclusive economic zone.

Turkey is contesting any natural resource discovery that involves Cyprus, insisting that the northern part of the island which it controls is entitled to benefit from any such find. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has threatened Cyprus with military action if it pursues its offshore drilling program with Israel, calling the program “madness.”

An announcement by Cyprus recently that it was seeking proposals for further gas exploration in its territorial waters has infuriated Turkish officials. A statement by the Turkish Foreign Ministry on Thursday called the move a “provocation concerning the sovereignty of Cyprus,” and said, “The Turkish government will do everything it can to protect the rights of Turkish Cypriots and will not allow foreign energy companies under any circumstances to carry out unauthorized gas or oil exploration activities.”

A statement by the Prime Minister’s Office on Thursday said that within two to four months an interoffice committee would decide if the natural gas reserves found in the Mediterranean would be exported by a joint Israel-Cyprus endeavor, or whether Israel would export the gas on its own. If the decision involves Cyprus, one possibility will be to connect the gas fields of the countries via a sea-based pipeline some 40 km (25 miles) long.

According to the Prime Minister’s Office, Russia, China and India are also interested in the project, and their involvement will serve as a deterrent against any attempt to sabotage it.

Boaz Bismuth comments that Israel’s new-found cooperation with Cyprus is a continuation of Ben Gurion’s “alliance of the periphery” to counteract Israel’s isolation by Arab regimes.

n the 1950s, Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, came up with the idea of having an “alliance of the periphery,” intended to circumvent the Arab world and counteract its opposition to Israel. Ben-Gurion understood that recognition and legitimacy from neighboring Arab regimes were not on the horizon, so he established a successful strategic alliance with non-Arab Muslim nations and those with Western proclivities: Iran from the east and Turkey from the north. Ethiopia and Chad also joined the alliance. Israel was no longer alone in the neighborhood.

The unprecedented agreement Israel signed with Cyprus in Nicosia on Thursday is reminiscent of Ben-Gurion’s alliance. The new agreement allows the Israel Defense Forces to deploy naval forces and airplanes in Cyprus’ territorial waters and airspace to defend natural gas sites against Turkish threats. The only difference is that today’s alliance has new players.

In recent years, the Foreign Ministry has worked, to a great degree of success, to forge ties in the Balkans. Israel’s relations with Greece and Cyprus have taken a turn for the better. Ties with Romania and Bulgaria are only growing stronger. Albania and Serbia can also be considered part of the alliance that has developed . Speaking of Albania, Israel will soon open an embassy in its capital, Tirana, as part of the warming relations between the countries. It it too bad that in our crazy times this new embassy will become yet another target for Iranian intelligence.

Israel also has some close friends in east Africa. Newly created South Sudan may still face many problems, but it is part of the emerging association. Kenya and Uganda, with which Israel has maintained close ties, can join the young nation. Who says we’re alone in the neighborhood?

On the same subject, Herb Keinon in the Jerusalem Post remarks that Turkey was the lurking presence in the Cyprus meeting.

Perhaps the most striking element of the press conference Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu held here Thursday with Cypriot President Demetris Christofias was that Netanyahu did not mention Turkey once.

Though the meeting that preceded the press conference was between the Israeli and Cypriot leaders, Turkey was the massive absent presence – the shadow that hovered unmistakenly above the room.

Christofias felt this presence – how could he miss it? Ankara warned him Thursday against exploring for gas off Cyprus’ shores, and scheduled, but did not carry out, a live-fire naval maneuver near the site of where the country is searching for gas.

During the press conference the Cypriot leader slammed Turkey, first calling on the international community and the EU to send a message to Ankara to stop violating international law, and then saying “it is not Cyprus that threatens Turkey, but Turkey that is threatening Cyprus. We will continue to cooperate [with Israel], and the true trouble-maker is Turkey, not the Israel-Cyprus relationship.”

Netanyahu had ample opportunity to slam Turkey; Christofias gave him many openings, perhaps even wanted him to say something. But Netanyahu – unlike Turkish leaders who seldom miss an opportunity to lob rhetorical broadsides at Israel – chose to ignore it.

Netanyahu’s overall message was that the burgeoning love affair between Israel and Cyprus – a country that just five years ago was considered one of the most hostile to Israel in Europe – has to do with Israel and Cyprus, not Turkey. There are enough common interests that bring the two countries together, he intimated, without having to bring in a common foe.

With Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan not healthy, and senior Cypriot officials saying he is on his way to the US to undergo medical treatment, Turkey could very well be on the cusp of major internal changes. With that a possible scenario, Israel has no interest in slamming the door in Turkey’s face.

Yet, things have changed dramatically since Erdogan berated President Shimon Peres in Davos in January 2009 for Operation Cast Lead, and the Turks sent the Mavi Marmara on its ill-fated blockade-bashing mission to Gaza in 2010. And one thing Netanyahu’s visit showed was the rapidity with which Israel was able to look at the new situation and adjust accordingly.

Rather than cowering before Turkey’s bellicose behavior and bemoaning an important relationship lost, Israel looked for creative ways to counterbalance Turkey. And Jerusalem found it in Turkey’s historic adversaries: Greece and Cyprus, as well as Romania, Bulgaria and – increasingly – Croatia.

Netanyahu did not have to mention Turkey in his remarks.

His very visit to Cyprus – the first ever by an Israeli prime minister – did it for him.

Turkey, through its threats and planned naval maneuver on Thursday, sent a message to Israel and Cyprus that Ankara is a major actor in the eastern Mediterranean that can’t be ignored.

And Netanyahu, just by being in Nicosia, sent a message back: We hear you, but Israel will do what it feels it must to promote its strategic and economic interests – despite what Turkey might think.

Let’s hope that Turkey gets the message.

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2 Responses to Israel consolidates its regional alliances

  1. Andrea says:

    I was in Egypt so far and it was not safe posting there on this topic but just come back I was intrigued by this M 346 “affaire”. News has gone unnoticed in the Italian press with exception of some technical sites – so not surprisingly. M346 was in fact previously selected by the UAE under its tender for 48 new trainer aircraft, in both operational and training versions. Emirates never confirmed.
    Negotiations between the United Arab Emirates and Alenia Aermacchi ( builder) over the possible sale of M-346 advanced jet trainers have just stopped yesterday, with industry sources saying there is no word on when they might resume. According to non Italian sites “Abu Dhabi announced at IDEX 2009 that it had selected the M-346 over the Korea Aerospace Industries T-50 in its advanced jet trainer competition. Two years on, however, the contract has not been signed. UAE military chiefs have been saying that their focus has been on “higher priority” procurements such as existing orders for Boeing C-17 and Lockheed Martin C-130J transports, and with Airbus Military for A330 multi-role tanker transports”
    Just to add a bit of fiction atmosphere prototype of M-346 crashed in Dubai in November after rumored technical failure.Believe it or not, it was not the Mossad, not this time. Just some days after this episode Obama cancelled important bid from this Italian company concerning White House elicopter, Berlusconi resigned ( for other reasons ) and top managers of Italian company had their troubles with Italian prosecutors ( for other reasons).
    Of course Israeli secret service and IDF strategists made their investigations on these not irrelevant episodes and peculiar chain of events. Accident was not considered attributable to any not remediable technical failure and M 346 was recommended. Now we can bet on the winner in UAE competition………
    According to non official sources Italian company was asked by UAE to grant a furnishing of drones as a preliinary condition for the bid concerning M346 –
    Italians, Israelis and Arabs – what characters for a Machiavel’s imbroglio – Shakespeare would have pierced all three of them with his literary sword.
    Anne, are you not involved on this, aren’t you ? 🙂

    • anneinpt says:

      Andrea, I just remembered this comment of yours from last week, and I realized I never replied. Your latest comment today reminded me because you mentioned the countries you worked in.

      Your work sounds fascinating and very intriguing. You ask if I’m involved in this skulduggery but I could just as easily ask it of you. 🙂

      Thank you for the very interesting insight into the wheeling and dealing that goes on in the defence industry. I find it of the most interest that the various UAE countries are buying the same planes as Israel.

      Yes, Shakespeare would have had a great time sorting this stuff out!

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