Weapons for sale: Arms deals giving Israel a bad name?

Israeli exports to Azerbaijan raise legal and ethical questions.

By
June 2, 2018 10:43
Weapons for sale: Arms deals giving Israel a bad name?

An employee looks through an infrared scope on a weapon at a preview presentation at Elbit Systems, Israel's biggest publicly listed defense firm. (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)

 
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ISRAEL IS among the top eight weapons exporters in the world, according to a 2017 report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

At 2.9% of global arms exports, it is preceded by the US, Russia, France, Germany, China, the UK and Spain and followed by Italy and the Netherlands.

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In terms of territorial size and population, Israel should be ranked No. 1. Recently, the Defense Ministry, which regulates and approves Israeli arms sales, announced that in 2017, the country’s weapons exports reached a record $9.2 billion – a nearly 50% increase over the last five years.

The Defense Ministry doesn't name the countries that buy Israeli military toys, only the continents. But the SIPRI report provides a bit more information: The No. 1 consumer of Israeli arms is India (49%), followed by Azerbaijan (13%) and, surprisingly, Vietnam (6%).

The military industries are a crucial component of the Israeli economy in terms of job creation, GNP, exports, hard currency and public relations. They began as a necessity even before the state was born and expanded to help the IDF grow and maintain its technological edge over the Arab enemies, particularly during periods of arms embargos. Since then, they have mushroomed into a huge industrial-military complex that also serves its own interests.

There is nothing wrong with this development – many states develop their own defense industries and try to sell their products. However, compared to other Western democratic countries, both Israeli arms manufacturers and the Defense Ministry are lacking in both transparency and oversight.

The Knesset and the Foreign Ministry are usually kept in the dark and marginalized by the Defense Ministry. The defense ministry, together with the defense industries and the military, have developed a symbiotic relationship, essentially becoming a state within a state.

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The absence of transparency and supervision sets the stage for corruption and regulation manipulation by companies and private individuals in the name of patriotism and national security interests.

Nearly a year ago, I revealed that the Aeronautics Defense System, a medium-sized (in Israeli terms) public company traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange (TASE) and a manufacturer of unmanned air (drones) and sea (boats) vehicles, violated Defense Ministry regulations.

Following a letter of complaint and the publication of my report, the ministry’s policy and investigation unit opened a probe into the company. They also took the matter to court and requested a gag order. Israeli judges are notorious for being more attentive to the needs of the security establishment than the public’s right to transparency and freedom of expression, and the media.

Magistrate’s Court Judge Amit Michals rushed to issue the gag order despite my appeal against it, and renewed it twice. He only allowed the publication of the fact that “the investigation against Aeronautics is about its dealings with an important customer.” But recently, a new judge, Guy Avnon, demonstrated more courage in taking on the establishment by agreeing to extend the gag order for only 30 more days with the expectation that by then the investigation unit and the prosecution would decide whether or not to bring charges against company officials.

In the meantime, another Israeli arms producer has also found itself in the eye of the storm. An investigative report by Czech TV exposed Elbit, one of Israel’s three largest security companies, in a dubious deal with Azerbaijan.

According to the report, a Czech company and its Slovakian subsidiaries conspired with Elbit and the Israeli Defense Ministry to sell artillery, guns and rocket launchers to the Azeri army by turning a blind eye to the fact that the end user certificate was fabricated. The deal is worth $50 million. Located on the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan shares long land and maritime borders with Iran. One-third of Iranians are of Azeri descent. Since declaring its independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has been a strategic ally of Israel.

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev hosts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Zagulba Palace in Baku on December 13, 2016 (HAIM ZACH/GPO)

The new deal embarrasses all involved parties, which refuse to comment. The Israeli defense establishment fears that the dictatorial regime of President Ilham Aliyev (his wife is also his deputy), who inherited it from his father, will be infuriated by the éxposé.

In the past, Azeri officials and the pro-government journalists who essentially dominate local media, have complained about stories (including by this reporter) that carry even a hint of criticism of their country, especially the regime. Journalists whose reports are perceived by the Azeri government as "negative" are labeled as "Armenian agents." It refuses to accept the fact that Israel is a democratic society whose government doesn't control the media.

Azerbaijan and Armenia, which is supported by Iran and Russia, are involved in a military conflict over the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In recent years, relations between Israel and the Caucasian country have tremendously improved. In 2012, Iranian intelligence and the Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah movement sent hit teams to Azerbaijan to assassinate the Israeli ambassador, Chabad emissaries and Jewish institutions in the capital of Baku.

The attacks were prevented, according to foreign reports, only because of accurate information obtained by the Mossad, which was shared with the friendly Azeri security agency. The terrorists were arrested and indicted, but due to pressure from Tehran, were released from jail a few years later before completing their long sentences.

In the past, foreign media have reported that Israeli intelligence, with the knowledge and approval of local Azeri authorities, opened a listening station and was granted an air strip for Israel Air Force planes to take off and land in the event of an attack against Iranian nuclear facilities. The Azeri government has persistently denied these reports. In May, a new wave of foreign reports claimed that Mossad operatives, who in an amazingly daring operation on January 31 stole the central nuclear military archive of Iran from a Tehran warehouse, and smuggled it to neighboring Azerbaijan – a claim that the country has denied.

As the Sipri report shows, Azerbaijan is also an important market for Israeli armaments. In December 2016, President Aliyev proudly acknowledged during a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that over the years, his country has purchased five billion dollars’ worth of military equipment from the Jewish state.

The last arms scandal was exposed when the Azeri army presented its new purchase of Howitzer guns and rocket launchers, mounted on Czech's Tatra trucks, during military parades in Baku. Referencing video clips of the event, reporter Dr. Jakob Szanto investigated the matter and discovered that the "Czechoslovak Group," owned by Jaroslav Strnad, which specializes in upgrading old Soviet weaponry, was behind the deal. It should be noted that arms sales to Azerbaijan are banned by the European Union because of the war with Armenia and human rights abuses.

After the Czechoslovak Group refurbished the guns and launchers, they were loaded on transporters of an Azeri company called Silkways, which flew them to Israel. Elbit provided the end-user certificate, giving the impression and legal basis that the arms were intended for Israel. But the Silkways cargo planes only landed at Ben-Gurion Airport for refueling, and without even unloading the cargo, continued on to Azerbaijan.

The entire deal has been approved by the three governments, which conspired to circumvent EU policy and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Elbit has refused to comment and the Israeli Defense Ministry has said that “as a matter of policy, we don't comment on military exports.”

Israeli law doesn't forbid arms sales to Azerbaijan, but Israel is obliged by the OECD and international norms not to play dirty games with its military exports, and certainly not to provide fraudulent end-user certificates.

This situation exemplifies the flaws of the Israeli Defense Ministry and its export policy. Before Israel was accepted to the OECD, one of the organization’s main concerns was the country’s manner of conducting arms sales. Israel has a reputation for corrupt practice in the field, including bribery, selling weapons for a fistful of dollars to the worst regimes in the world.

The irony is that most of its weapons exports are legitimate, but it’s the few contaminated deals, such as with Aeronautics and Elbit, that continue to give Israel a bad name.

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