Israel's New Frontiers: South Korea and the Sea

Opening up a broad relationship with South Korea, kicked off by a new naval procurement deal, will allow Israel to greatly reduce the vulnerability of depending on just one or two countries for critical defense systems.

Earlier this month, Israel’s defense ministry announced a billion-dollar acquisition deal for Italy's M346 trainer fighter jets, which beat out South Korea’s T-50 jets. Israel appears to have made the right choice by investing in the M346 which can carry more weapons and can travel greater distance, giving it dual role as trainer as well as a fighter jet. However, the diplomatic fallout of this big-budget decision threatens to disrupt the trend of warming relations between South Korea and Israel.

The tender for the jet trainer purchase was particularly grueling, and it was subsequently reported that South Korea was left feeling somewhat insulted. A Korean government source reported that the Israeli tender was “unfair” and that future Israeli tenders must go through the "known and fair practice" of providing proposals before final selection.

But despite the backlash, Israel’s choice made good sense. Opting to shore up its neighboring European relationships and receiving a mutual commitment for Italian purchases of Israeli defense equipment was a bargain too good to refuse. But it's precisely at this juncture, a week after the announcement that Seoul lost the tender, that Israel's leadership needs to step in and provide the Israel-South Korean bilateral relationship a jump-start.

Looking at Israel’s current national security landscape, airpower can no longer adequately address Israel’s power projection needs as it once did. With mega-gas fields in development on Israel’s coast; Turkey menacing in the northern Mediterranean; Egypt on the brink of an Islamist chaos; and Iran funneling arms and manpower into Hezbollah and Hamas, Israeli military planners will have to quickly expand the reach of its traditionally small naval force. Connecting the dots, South Korea’s mature shipbuilding industry is well poised to partner and produce Israel’s much needed naval expansion.

Israel's political and military leadership have long been speaking to the need for a major naval upgrade. The navy has budgeted $500 million for the purchase of two large ships and has made plans to increase its UAV and submarine forces. But deals with Israel's two main naval suppliers - the United States and Germany - geared at acquiring new naval platforms have recently fallen through.

Trudeau once remarked that “the essential ingredient in politics is timing.” With the jet trainer deal now yesterday’s news, it's crucial for Israel to change the subject with South Korea as soon as it can. The best way to forget an unsuccessful deal is to put an even better deal on the table.

The timing for a turn toward the Korean peninsula has never been better. South Korea’s shipbuilding industry is one of the most advanced in the world and well suited to custom tailoring the sort of ships Israel needs. Moreover, the Korean vessels will be far cheaper than anything the U.S. would sell, even taking into account U.S. financial assistance, and are far more flexible in allowing joint-industrial partnering than would be possible with the more rigid German ships.

Beyond the immediate advantage of quick procurement lies a wealth of benefits to be reaped from an Israeli-South Korean relationship. Like South Korea, Israel is a small country that is perpetually confronted by existential uncertainty. Opening up a broad relationship with South Korea, kicked off by a new naval procurement deal, will allow Israel to greatly reduce the vulnerability of depending on just one or two countries for critical defense systems.

Today, given the emerging threats in the Middle East, Israel should be making long-term investment in a foreign shipbuilding industry in erecting its 21st century navy. And though the West has been the traditional supplier of Israel’s Air Force, prudence and the geopolitical climate suggest that Israel use naval expansion as an opportunity to diversify its foreign relations. With ports facing eastwards (the Mediterranean) and westwards (the Red Sea), Israel has access to two major oceans, providing an opportunity to project its strategic capabilities far beyond its land and air space.

Turning eastward, South Korea’s advanced shipbuilding industry, democratic society, economic prowess, and strategic location serve Israel with a singular opportunity to make a robust return on its security investment. Such a large-scale defense-economic project would radically alter Israel’s relationship with South Korea - from a precarious friendship to a strategic alliance, all the while providing Israel access to world-class sea power.

The writer is the co-founder of the Jewish National Initiative, a grassroots advocacy forum that is bringing Zionism into the 21st century and direct a successful debate society (whiskey debates) in Tel Aviv since 2008.