Arms Embargoes Had Little Effect on Israel in the Past

Britain unlikely to carry out its threat to suspend weapons export to Israel if fighting in Gaza resumes.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Israeli Merkava tanks near the Gaza border, August 5, 2014.
Israeli Merkava tanks near the Gaza border, August 5, 2014.Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The British threat to suspend 12 arms export licenses to Israel has little to do with foreign policy. The announcement, made on Tuesday by Business Secretary Vince Cable, which said that "in the event of a resumption of significant hostilities," the U.K. will suspend export licenses for military equipment to Israel, is mainly a result of weeks of internal wrangling in the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition and an attempt at gesture politics to local voters. It will also have a negligible impact, if at all, on the Israel Defense Forces.

Cable, a senior minister of the junior coalition partner, the Lib-Dems, got to make the announcement, as this was the maximum his party succeeded in extracting from Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who has been adamantly opposed to any explicit condemnation of Israel's actions in Gaza.

This remains Cameron's policy even though last week his government lost a mid-level Conservative minister, Sayeeda Warsi, who passed over for promotion and decided to resign in protest over the lack of British condemnation of Israel over the bloodshed in Gaza.

Tuesday's decision hardly satisfied Warsi, who tweeted in response: "The #UK Govt position to ONLY suspend IF hostilities resume is 'morally indefensible.' Surely the destruction to date meets the criteria!"

The Lib-Dems, under the leadership of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, were pushing for a more robust decision. They were seeking, at least, a temporary suspension of British arms exports to Israel, but Cameron refused and all they were left with is a conditional decision; though it is unclear just how significant will a "resumption of significant hostilities" have to be to trigger actual suspension.

So far, the Israeli government has been satisfied with the British policy toward the Gaza crisis, and the official response to Cable's announcement was relatively low-key. Unnamed Israeli officials did however accuse the British minister of "incentivizing" Hamas to break the ceasefire in order to achieve a "diplomatic victory" by triggering the export suspension. But even they said that an actual suspension was highly unlikely and would have very little impact on the Israeli military, which does not use any major British weapon systems.

Aside from its broad diplomatic support for Israel, the British government would not be eager to go ahead with a partial arms embargo. It is fully aware that the British Army relies on Israeli technology for its drone fleet, and that it spends on it many times more than what Israel spends on British military equipment.

In recent years, Israel buys less than 10 million pounds ($16.8 million) of military-related goods from Britain on average - a tiny proportion of its defense needs. After the United States and Germany – Israel's main foreign suppliers - relatively large contracts have been placed with Italian and Indian companies. One of the reasons for the steady reduction in orders from British arms manufacturers has been precisely such incidents – Israel's past experience of arms embargoes and license suspensions by the British government. The pending orders mainly include spare parts for tanks, aircrafts and radar systems, as well as small amounts of ammunition - nearly all of which can easily be purchased from other countries Israel regularly does business with.

One item on the list to draw media attention was drone engine that is manufactured by an Israeli-owned company in Britain. But this engine is not for Israel Air Force's drones, which use German and Austrian engines, but for the Watchkeeper WK450 – an Israeli drone designed by Elbit Systems which has been ordered by the British Army. Britain is paying 800 million pounds for the Watchkeeper system, which will provide its military with advanced battlefield reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering capabilities. Since 2007, the British Army has been using Elbit Hermes 450 drones in Afghanistan to support and protect its troops there, bringing Britain's expenditure on Israeli drone technology alone to more than a billion pounds.

Britain has a checkered past when it comes to arms sales to Israel. During the 1947-1949 Independence War, its official policy was to block arms sales to both sides, though Jordan's Arab Legion - which occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem and according to many sources took part in the massacre of the defenders of the Gush Etzyon kibbutzim - was not only fully equipped by Britain, but it was trained and lead by British officers. As in all other subsequent cases of arms embargoes, Israel found alternative suppliers and resorted to local production. The main personal weapon of Israel's infantry during that war were British-designed Sten submachine guns manufactured in an underground workshop near Rehovot . Throughout most of the 1950s and 1960s, however, the U.K. gladly sold Israel with jet-planes, submarines and tanks, usually models being retired from use by the British armed forces.

The most memorable British arms embargo on Israel, perhaps, was the decision in 1969, following pressure from the Arab states, not to supply Israel with the jointly-designed Chieftain tanks it had ordered. As a result, Israel decided to buy American Patton tanks as a stop-gap measure, and to embark on the development of the locally-designed Merkava. In much the same way that the French decision in 1968 to block the sale of Mirage 5 fighter-jets spurred both to the development of an indigenous aerospace industry and the decision to rely, from that point on, almost exclusively on the U.S., Margaret Thatcher's decision to freeze arms sales following Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which remained in effect for nine years, had less of an impact on the IDF by then. Its main effect was on the ageing fleet of U.S. manufacture F-4 Phantom fighter-jets which used British Martin-Baker ejection seats and was a factor in their withdrawal from front-line service and replacement by new F-16s without any crucial British components.

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