The summit in Singapore between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un was the foreign policy news that overshadowed everything else this week. Despite the Korean Peninsula being literally and figuratively far removed from Israel, there are some lessons for Israel that arose from the Trump-Kim meeting and thoughts about what it could mean for Israel going forward.
To begin with the potential positives, as noted by Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, the meeting is a first step toward demonstrating that there can be a path to denuclearization that can pertain to Iran as well. There is of course no evidence yet that North Korea will actually come clean about the entirely of its nuclear program, allow international inspectors to verify its scope, eliminate its nuclear weapons and nuclear facilities, and subject itself to permanent inspections to continually verify that it has not restarted its nuclear program. But if that entire process ends up materializing, it is both an example and a guide for what Iran can be expected to do as well, and it shows how more pressure on Iran may bring about the contours of a bandied-about “better deal.”
The summit also demonstrates that intense ideological differences do not have to be an absolute barrier to a deal or even to a less hostile relationship. Whether talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the enmity between Israel and Iran, one of the biggest hurdles to be overcome is intense anti-Israel – and in many instances anti-Semitic – vitriol that plays a role not only in sustaining conflict but in keeping regimes in power as a source of legitimacy. The Kim family dictatorship in North Korea has as one if its foundations a mythical legacy of standing up to the U.S. that depicts the U.S. as an implacable foe. While the meeting with Trump gave Kim a clear win in terms of legitimizing him as an equal, the overly friendly imagery also portrays the U.S. in a different light to North Koreans despite decades of images and rhetoric to the contrary. If North Koreans can be persuaded that the U.S. is not as bad as they thought, then the same process can happen among Palestinians, Iranians, and others who view Israel as an unredeemable enemy.
Finally, Trump’s formula to bring about North Korea denuclearization and a formal peace treaty ending the Korean War seems to be centered around a financial commitment from the U.S. to transform the North Korean economy and to provide it with security guarantees that will inevitably be costly. An investment of American resources toward bringing about and then guaranteeing a peace deal is the same element that will be required to ultimately secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace, much as it was required to secure peace between Israel and Egypt. Trump’s embrace of this formula and all that it entails from the American side is encouraging in the Israeli space.
There are, however, a number of potential negative consequences for Israel from the Singapore summit, and unlike the positive ones, they are in many ways less speculative and are not contingent upon events that are yet to happen. The first is that the obvious lesson for Iran to take from all of this is that the better deal to be had is not for the P5+1 states, but for Iran, and that it depends on Iran breaking out as quickly as possible. North Korea just managed to get its first ever meeting with an American president, a promise from Trump to cancel joint American-South Korean military exercises, and a flood of praise from Trump about its dictator’s smarts, talent, and popularity, all in return for nothing but a vague promise to start a process. North Korea was able to do all of this not because it was threatening to build a nuclear bomb, but because it had already built dozens of them. In contrast to Iraq and Libya, which did not reach the nuclear threshold and were subject to American-led regime change, North Korea withstood the pressure until it had its own ultimate security guarantee, and now stands ready to reap the benefits. If Iran follows this strategy, it will create a new and unprecedented threat for Israel.
Second, the summit provides evidence for a fear that many Israelis have quietly harbored, which is that Trump is willing to sell out even his tightest allies for the hollow imagery of a win. While credit should be given to Trump for being able to walk back his earlier bombast that raised tensions with North Korea to their highest historical point and getting to this summit instead, everything that happened this week was substance-free. Trump’s boast that there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea would be comical if it were not so terrifying to contemplate that he may actually believe it, and in return for some easily made pledges and a pile of flattery from Kim, Trump canceled the decades-long military exercises with South Korea without notifying – let alone discussing it – with the South Koreans, Japanese, or his own U.S. military. Israelis should rightly assume after this that the prospect of rapprochement with Iran, or the possibility of achieving any other American aims in the region, might involve similarly eliminating American commitments to Israel’s security on nothing more than Trump’s whim.
Third, the North Korean nuclear program has not been confined to North Korea. The Syrian nuclear reactor in Deir Ezzor that Israel destroyed in 2007 was built by North Korean engineers and scientists with North Korean components. North Korea has also supplied Syria with chemical weapons and arms going back decades. If Trump manages to convince North Korea to denuclearize, it would be a great development for the U.S. and the Asia-Pacific, but it will have unintended consequences for Israel and the Middle East. Thousands of North Korean nuclear scientists and engineers will now be out of work, and the countries most eager to take advantage of their expertise are likely to be ones that Israel wants to prevent from becoming nuclear powers at all costs. Much as German nuclear scientists contributed to nuclear programs around the world after Germany’s defeat and occupation in World War II, North Korean experts may end up using their knowledge in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Finally, the North Korea summit is the latest piece of evidence that it is in many ways easiest to get in Trump’s good graces and extract concessions from him when starting from a position of extreme antagonism. Trump’s unsettling preference and praise for authoritarian leaders over democratic allies is well-documented, but showing that he has flipped a state or a leader from being at odds with the U.S. to adopting a friendlier footing feeds into his “I alone can fix it” narrative. It happened with China, it happened with North Korea, and one can see how it would happen with Iran or the Palestinian Authority. While Prime Minister Netanyahu has played to Trump’s personality and proclivities very well with constant praise and deference, the prospect of having Ali Khamenei or Mahmoud Abbas say something nice about Trump will outweigh anything that Netanyahu could do or say. Israel should be prepared for the eventuality that the current good graces in which Trump holds it may flip at a moment’s notice if the Iranians or the Palestinians decide to wise up.