JERUSALEM — About 10 years ago the deputy chief of Israel’s Mossad, Ephraim Halevy, and a top-level Foreign Ministry official, Eitan Bentsur, were invited separately to meet with North Korean leaders and discuss Pyongyang’s missile supplies to various countries in the Middle East. The North Koreans made it clear they expected a significant Israeli financial response in return for agreements to curb such sales. The two Israelis traveled separately to Washington to get American views on the issue.
Each came back with different conclusions and recommendations. Halevy understood Washington was opposed to the North Korean offer, and that it would be best not to get under the Americans’ feet in a place where Washington has critical interests tied to its military presence in South Korea. Bentsur said Israel should not reject the North Korean offer.
Then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin decided to accept Halevy’s view after the Americans promised they would deal through their own contacts with the matter of Middle East missile exports. Their view was to tackle the nuclear problem first and then the missile problem, and so the North Korean portfolio became an American responsibility.
In 1994, the United States and North Korea reached an agreement, now breached, by which North Korea promised to freeze its nuclear development program. But the missile problem only intensified.
Israel has not always followed the course it did a decade ago. When it became evident that Iran was trying to acquire ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel, and was pushing ahead with a military nuclear plan with the help of the Russians and Chinese, Israel adopted its own line. It coordinated its moves with Washington, but also acted, and continues to act, on its own vis-a-vis Russia regarding nuclear leakage to Iran, and the same with China. In this case, Israel’s separate path was clearer, despite the coordination with Washington.
It asked the leaders in Beijing not to endanger it with Middle Eastern weapons deals and even received promises. Sometimes this angered the Americans, who accused Israel of endangering regional stability, as in the case of the Phalcon aircraft sale to China.
The circumstances of 1992, when Israel was in contact with North Korea, are different from the circumstances today. The crisis with North Korea is being conducted against the background of an expected American attack on Iraq. Even though it is clear that North Korea is on the way to acquiring nuclear weapons, the United States is offering a peaceful solution and increased economic aid.
The new administration in South Korea is offering a tempting negotiation for a new economic-security deal to calm North Korea. Israel cannot ignore the fact that during the last decade, North Korea has exposed it to dangers in the Middle East by its ties to the missile programs of Syria, Iran, Libya and Yemen.
The missile shipment which was intercepted late last year off of Yemen was apparently on its way to Iraq. Egypt has also signed a purchase order for 50 engines for long-range No Dong missiles, but the deal was nixed by the United States.
If the current crisis over the North Korean missile program is not settled, there is a danger that Pyongyang will sell not just missile technology but nuclear technology to the Middle East. It’s a country that easily goes to the brink and is ready to take major risks in seeking a new anti-American coalition with countries like Iran, Libya, Syria and Yemen. This is a coalition that by definition will be extremely anti-Israeli.
Thus, North Korea’s moves in the Middle East pose dangers for Israel, which will only worsen if the crisis deepens. The coordination with Washington is therefore of great importance, and one should not conclude that Israel will be a silent player that waits for everything to be done for it by Washington. Israel has good reasons of its own for making direct contact with North Korea, just as it did with China and Russia.
This story is reprinted with permission from Ha’aretz, whose Web site is www.haaretzdaily.com.