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What does the US-France-Australia submarine row mean for Israel?

CM 23/09/2021 3

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Like filmic character Forrest Gump, Philippe Étienne has repeatedly found himself in the thick of history’s dramatic events.
The French master of six tongues launched his 40-year diplomatic career in Belgrade, where he landed the year after the legendary Josip Broz Tito’s death, and was thus witness to the beginning of his legacy’s demise.
Étienne then witnessed the end of the Cold War from its three focal points: Moscow, where he served when the USSR fell apart; Brussels, where he served when the Berlin Wall collapsed; and Bonn, where he served when the leaders of East and West Germany met for the first and last time.

It was therefore only natural that Étienne would also be there as the ambassador to Washington who was recalled by his government, the first time such a thing happened since Louis XVI installed the first foreign envoy in the newborn US.
As his airplane flew eastward across the Atlantic, the 65-year-old diplomat must have wondered how the French-American row compares with the many dramas that have checkered his illustrious career since its inception back in his twenties.
Well, Ambassador Étienne will be returning to Washington next week, but the meaning of the row he has just experienced is profound, not only for its protagonists, but also for the Jewish state.

The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Tennessee returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia (credit: REUTERS/MASS COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST 1ST CLASS JAMES KIMBER/U.S. NAVY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Tennessee returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia (credit: REUTERS/MASS COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST 1ST CLASS JAMES KIMBER/U.S. NAVY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

That was in 2014. The plot thickened last month with Canberra’s cancellation of the deal, and climaxed when it turned out that it struck an alternative deal with Washington.
Technically, Australia’s move reflected its assessment that China’s growing aggressiveness demands nuclear vessels rather than the French deal’s diesel engines, and a shorter deadline than the French deal’s 2035.
Strategically, however, the technical change of course reflected a diplomatic change of heart. That is what France understood when it turned out that Australia’s recourse was inspired by the Indo-Pacific alliance unveiled last month by the leaders of Britain, Australia and the US (AUKUS).
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s charge of “a stab in the back” is therefore understandable. France was indeed betrayed. Still, this affair is not about fidelity, but about interests. It’s about the new geopolitical order that will effectively replace NATO and define the international system in upcoming years.
AUSTRALIA VEERED from France to America because its main geopolitical concern is China. China is also America’s main foreign concern. France’s main geopolitical concern is not China. It’s Russia. Not because Russia might invade France, but because it might invade other members of the European Union.
This writer felt the European fear of Russia during a visit in 2019 to Lithuania’s growing army and a meeting with then-defense minister Raimundas Karoblis. Following Russia’s invasion of Crimea, he said, Vilnius concluded that Russia wants to restore its regional domination, “so we will once again be their marionettes.”
Such fears abound along the EU’s eastern flank, from Estonia to Bulgaria, where formerly Communist countries fear the landed threat of the historically landed Russian Empire. That is not where American and Australian fears lie. Their concern is not landed Russia, but maritime China.
In other words, the West is splitting between those who feel more threatened by Russia, and those who feel more threatened by China.
At the same time, both China and Russia are no longer in the business of exporting revolution, the way they were during the Cold War. That is why NATO has become an anachronism.
Seen through this prism, Britain’s place is with America and Australia, not only because of the three’s shared history and culture, and not only because of Britain’s departure from the EU, but because Britain, despite its imperial decline, remains a maritime power, one for which Russia’s historic tensions with Poland and Ukraine are less relevant than the shadow China is casting from Tokyo to Perth.
The bottom line of all this is that NATO’s three Anglophone members, US, Britain and Canada, will in upcoming years gradually let its European members focus on containing Russia while they, along with India, Japan, Indonesia and Singapore, focus on containing China.
IN JERUSALEM, this new evolution will make many identify reflexively with the new American-led alliance, due to Israel’s historic dependence on, and indebtedness to, America.
Some might also feel a sense of schadenfreude at France’s predicament, recalling the arms embargo it imposed on Israel while it came under siege in 1967. To such myopic Israelis, France’s unsold submarines now seem like poetic justice for the country that back in 1969 withheld from Israel the boats of Cherbourg, a flotilla of attack vessels for which Israel had paid in full prior to France’s embargo.
This is not how Israel should approach the current situation.
Never mind that the French leaders of 1967 are long dead, that Étienne was a child at the time and President Emmanuel Macron was not even born. What matters is that Israel has nothing to gain, and plenty to lose, from getting involved in superpower struggles.
Yes, during the Cold War we took sides, but that was different. The USSR and Maoist China were actively anti-Israel, and the former was also antisemitic. Today Israel has formal relations, bustling trade and mutual respect with all the superpowers. That’s a major achievement whose preservation should be for Israeli diplomacy an overarching aim.
Israel already has effectively launched a neutrality policy, when it refused to join anti-Russian sanctions, despite the Obama administration’s pressure following the invasion of Crimea. It was a prudent policy which bore fruit when the Russian Air Force arrived in Syria.
That should also be Israel’s attitude toward China and the new alliance that is now out to confront it, even though it includes our very best friends.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019) is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.


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