Israel has been widely criticized for its reluctance to provide weapons for Ukraine, but it could wind up being one of the countries to profit most from the Ukraine war with Russia.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made a clumsy effort to mediate a solution that was rejected by both sides. President Vladimir Putin brushed him aside and an unnamed senior Ukrainian official has been quoted as saying Bennett advised President Volodymyr Zelensky to accept Putin’s demands for ending the fighting. He denied it.The Israeli public may side with Ukraine by a three-to-one margin, even sending donations and volunteers, but Bennett seems unmoved.
His government sent a medical field hospital for a few weeks, has shipped helmets and flak jackets, and shared some intelligence, but turned down requests for lethal assistance. Ukraine’s request for the Iron Dome anti-missile systems was rejected; Israel even blocked the United States from sending the batteries it purchased from Israel.
The Iron Dome may not be a suitable weapon for this conflict, but there was no apparent effort to provide more appropriate alternatives to bolster Ukraine’s defense. Israel has plenty of those and sells them around the world to autocrats and democrats alike. So why not a fledgling democracy under attack from a brutal dictator?
Fear is an important factor, such as fear that Moscow will close Israel’s access to Syrian air space, which is controlled by the Russian air force. Israel has virtually free rein to attack Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah targets it considers threatening, with the caveat that no harm comes to any Russian forces. Last week S-300 missiles were fired at Israeli fighters after an attack in northwest Syria. Those SAMs are operated by the Russian military and their first-ever use led to speculation that they could signal a warning of possible change in Moscow’s policy.
Much of Moscow’s war machine is in rusty ruins, littering the landscape of Ukraine. Hundreds of tanks have been destroyed. Thousands of soldiers killed, leaving behind what Zelensky called “a mountain of corpses.” The once vaunted Russian Army has suffered what may be the worst defeat in a century, regardless of the outcome of this conflict.
It has been costly for Russia in so many ways. The country’s international standing has tanked and so has its economy. Its leader is being called a war criminal. Its army is humiliated. Its arms industry is reduced to scavenging computer chips from home appliances to put in tanks and other weapons system.
This war revealed the poor training, management, morale and leadership of the Russian army. Troops complain about poor, outdated equipment, inedible rations, inadequate medical supplies, and even unsuitable uniforms and helmets.
Russia is the world’s second largest arms exporter, accounting for 19% of global weapons sale, far behind the US (39%), according the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. That could well change. The industry will have to gear up for domestic production to replace massive losses but will be hobbled by cutoffs of foreign-supplied components, particularly electronics.
AFTER THIS war, for both political and practical reasons, there will be fewer customers for the Russian stuff that proved an embarrassing failure. China will try to move into second place, but much of its arms are Russian knock-offs.
One of China’s knock-offs is apparently Israeli. China’s J-10 fighter jet is widely believed to be based on the Israeli Lavi, which was dropped by Israel after the prototype stage. J-10s reportedly have been sold to Pakistan. Israel tried to sell China an AWACS-type surveillance plane, but it was cancelled under US pressure because Washington worried that Beijing could use it in an attack on Taiwan.
The bad news for Russia’s defense sector is good news for the competition, including Israel, China, France, Germany and South Korea, all of which will be moving in to fill the gap, not only in quantity but as revealed in Ukraine, quality.
Israel's military-industrial establishment
Israel’s military-industrial establishment is highly developed and respected globally. It built much of its reputation by decisively defeating its Soviet-equipped-and-trained enemies. Its air force is one of the most powerful and advanced in the world, and the country is a global leader in the development of drones, going back before the US got its first aloft.
After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel had large surpluses of defense equipment plus major amounts of captured Soviet-made Egyptian and Syrian tanks and other systems it was able to restore and sell abroad. That also opened doors in countries with whom it previously had no relations. Israel was even selling spare parts to Iran for its US-built tanks and planes in the early 1980s, during its war with Iraq.
“Proven in combat” has been a successful Israeli sales pitch.
Israel’s extensive customer roster includes countries that lack diplomatic relations with Israel. Sales of fighter jets, drones, missiles, mortars, munitions, patrol boats, rifles, ammunition, and surveillance equipment have opened doors to commercial and diplomatic relations, and improved others.
The US may be Israel’s principal supplier of weapons and technology, but it is also a customer for some missiles and anti-missile systems.
Israel is currently the 10th largest arms exporter worldwide. Its best customer is India, followed by Azerbaijan, Vietnam and China, according to the Times of Israel. Israel’s arms sales to India are the “bedrock of a strategic partnership,” according to that country’s Observer Research Foundation.
“Vietnam is now one of Israel’s largest clients in the world in terms of weapons and military technology sales,” reports Haaretz. It is buying weapons and surveillance technology and is looking to Israel to help replace its Cold War-era Soviet and Chinese weapons. The country turns to Israel because it lacks sufficient technical expertise and manufacturing infrastructure.
Israel has used arms sales as a foreign policy tool and a route to diplomatic ties. Sri Lanka asked Washington in the 1980s to help it obtain Israeli anti-terrorism expertise and was told it had to speak directly to Jerusalem. It did. Today, its air force includes 17 Israeli-built Kfir warplanes and its pilots are trained in Israel.
Israel is also a leader in anti-missile technology. Germany and Finland are among countries reportedly considering the Israeli defense system, and markets are opening among Arab countries once considered in the enemy camp.
Israel is also looking at another Ukraine war bonus. The Jerusalem Post reports Israel, Egypt and the European Union are in negotiations to export Israeli natural gas to Europe to help fill the gap by Russian cutoffs and sanctions.
War may be hell, but clearly it is good for business. What’s less clear is what Israel’s coldly pragmatic approach may do to its already battered world image at a time when Western democracies are energetically aiding Ukraine in its fierce battle to retain its independence.
The writer is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).