From Pyongyang to Tehran, Jerusalem and back

With North Korea agreeing, at least in principle, to complete nuclear dismantlement (they have failed to live up to similar commitments before), a comparative threshold has been set.

June 14, 2018 21:59
3 minute read.
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un leave after signing documents that

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un leave after signing documents that acknowledge the progress of the talks and pledge to keep momentum going, after their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12, 2018.. (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)

Pyongyang is about as far from Israel geographically and psychologically as possible. Israelis could therefore be excused if they thought that the outcome of the recent summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore had little direct importance for them.

However, it has wide ranging ramifications for Israel.

First, North Korea has supplied nuclear and missile technology to Iran and the Syrian nuclear reactor that Israel bombed in 2007. There have also been reports of possible North Korean assistance to Iran to circumvent the 2015 nuclear deal. Any limits on the North’s nuclear and missile programs are thus of great importance for Israel.

Second, Israel’s national security is indelibly linked to that of the United States. The stronger US stature, the better this reflects on Israel’s adversaries’ perceptions of it, too. The perception of a successful summit in Singapore, even if only partly warranted, is thus of importance for Israel, especially since the focus was on the dismantlement of an illicit nuclear program. The successful image was particularly important following Trump’s willful mauling of the US’ foremost allies at the G-7 summit, just days earlier, which had created the impression of a foreign policy out of control.

Third, the Iranians must be worried regarding the summit’s ramifications for their nuclear and missile ties with North Korea and for their own nuclear program, following Trump’s recent withdrawal from the 2015 deal. Iran clearly prefers to face a weak, embattled president, as Trump appeared after the G-7 debacle, to one who may have led to an historic breakthrough.

With North Korea agreeing, at least in principle, to complete nuclear dismantlement (they have failed to live up to similar commitments before), a comparative threshold has been set.

Trump, whose declared goal is a new and improved deal with Iran, unlike the “terrible” one signed by former US president Barack Obama, will be hard pressed to justify a lesser outcome with Iran. The US’ European partners, too, will have been shown what a “properly” negotiated deal can achieve.

Fourth, the US made three major concessions to North Korea, subject to a final deal, that have direct bearing on Iran. Trump offered to provide Pyongyang with regime guarantees, i.e. assurances that the US will not seek its overthrow.

Teheran’s foremost national security objective, similarly, is ensuring the survival of the Islamic Republic, especially in the face of a perceived threat from the US. Trump also expressed interest in withdrawing American forces from the Far East, a long-standing objective of Iran’s in its region, thereby creating a precedent for a similar demand. In addition, Trump agreed to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea, again setting the basis for a similar Iranian demand in the region.

Fifth, the Iranians must have been impressed by Trump’s apparent willingness to make major concessions, without extracting commensurate ones in return, and by his cavalier approach to negotiations generally.

They will clearly be far happier to deal with an impulsive, undisciplined president, should talks restart, who does not feel a need to prepare for negotiations and whose grasp of the issues is superficial, than with an uber-wonk such as Obama.

Sixth, Trump’s success in Singapore may further whet his appetite to take on the “ultimate deal,” i.e. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. With a major foreign policy success under his belt, Trump will be risking less by doing so and with his inflated self-confidence further increased, Trump’s belief in his “tremendous” capabilities will grow.

Israel’s government should take heed. An American president willing to gratuitously cause unprecedented disruption in relations with the US’ closest allies – Canada, Britain, France, Germany and Japan – who narcissistically basks in the attention, will not hesitate to do so with a lesser ally such as Israel and to adopt positions totally adverse to its interests.

The current idyll in US-Israeli relations may be short-lived when dealing with Iran, or the administration launches its peace plan.

Conversely, in some cases Trump’s willingness to trash long-established norms and axioms of foreign policy can have a positive impact and there are few places where a new and tougher approach may be more appropriate than Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Trump already demonstrated his willingness to shake up the conventional approach towards the Palestinian issues with his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and there is a further need to do so regarding their wholly unrealistic expectations regarding the “right of return.” Israel’s rightwing is also in need of a reality check.

The writer, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser, is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center and the author of Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change.

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