Morality Is Needed in Defense Policy, Too

It is an enormous temptation for defense establishment officials to trade in their know-how and experience and make easy, handsome profits - but this is precisely an area in which Defense Minister Peretz's unique approach could make a difference.

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Amir Peretz thinks of himself as a "social" defense minister. As someone who comes from the civilian world, he has an opportunity to also be a moral defense minister - not only in his approach toward the Palestinians, but also in the way the defense ministry affects foreign policy. I am referring to one of the most unregulated fields of Israeli policy - arms dealing.

Israeli arms dealers run wild around the world, ruining Israel's reputation as a country. There is hardly a military conflict, ethnic confrontation or civil war where there are not Israeli weapons dealers, security consultants, instructors and protection squads to be found on one side or the other - and sometimes on both. They sell Israeli-made products, from Israel Defense Forces surpluses or other sources, to anyone who asks. It can be a bloodthirsty dictator, a militia commander or a chief of staff.

Nearly every day, there are foreign delegations in Israel to buy weapons or know-how. They are mostly invited by arms dealers or security export firms that make sure to present them with the latest weapons systems - and for dessert, a meeting with the defense minister or top officials and officers, either former or still serving in the defense establishment.

A reminder of just how senior a position Israel holds in the international weapons industry came up last week in a report by Amnesty International. True, Israel was not there on its own, but rather in the company of most of the world's developed nations. The report was meant to draw the attention of international public opinion to the fact that the weapons provided by arms dealers perpetuate conflicts, fuel wars, harm innocent civilians (including quite a few children) and help keep rulers who systematically violate human rights in power. Every bullet produced not only has an address, it also has a manufacturing plant and a sales and distribution chain.

This activity does not take place in the dark. It might not be transparent to the public, but it is well known to Defense Ministry officials, IDF officers and anyone who is familiar with what is known as the defense industry. Worst of all, it is conducted with the encouragement and backing of the Defense Ministry.

The ministry should seemingly be in charge of monitoring defense exports. But in effect, it is the cat guarding the cream. There are a number of reasons for this, some justified, others not. In the first decades of the state, the need to sustain a sophisticated defense industry that would give the IDF a qualitative advantage and provide it with weapons was very real, especially when international embargoes were imposed. The industry, which grew as a result, provides livelihoods for tens of thousands, perhaps even 100,000, households. In recent years, defense exporters - including hundreds of manufacturers, both state-owned and privately owned - have averaged some $2 billion a year in sales, which puts Israel among the top six weapons exporters in the world.

Sometimes, there are conflicts of interest. IDF officers in charge of acquisitions, or who otherwise come into contact with defense industries, are offered fat contracts by those very same companies after their demobilization. Military attaches and Mossad officials nurture contacts with officials, officers and facilitators in countries where they are stationed, and then do business with them later on. Sometimes, the revolving door principle is at work: Officers and defense experts who go into the civilian market later obtain desirable jobs in the Defense Ministry - former ministry director general Amos Yaron is just one of many examples - and then return to the private market once again. It all happens without any cooling-off period, or with a cooling-off period that is not sufficiently monitored.

It is an enormous temptation for defense establishment officials to trade in their know-how and experience and make easy, handsome profits. There is also the potential for corruption. Among other results, one is that it is not necessarily Israel's security or diplomatic interests that dictate policy, but the interests of those who benefit from the system. For years, the Foreign Ministry has been trying to subject defense exports to an overall foreign policy that takes moral considerations into account. Next month, the United Nations will consider a proposal to limit small arms sales, in order to minimize the damage they do in conflict zones. The Foreign Ministry wants Israel to join the initiative, but the dominance of the defense industry lobby and the Defense Ministry will make this impossible.

This is precisely an area in which Defense Minister Peretz's unique approach could make a difference. He does not come from the security milieu. He does not have friends among the arms dealers and is not beholden to them. He can be a genuine civilian defense minister, someone who will consider not only pragmatic interests, but also moral ones, who will decide that there must be rules about what is allowed and prohibited in weapons exports. Peretz could shape new rules that would prevent the proliferation of embarrassing situations in which arms sales are transformed from an asset into a burden, from a source of national pride in technological creativity into a disgrace.

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