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How Israel Hopes to Avert U.S. Crisis Over Illegal Missile Sales to Asian Country

Jerusalem is banking on its fast response and cooperation with the U.S. to prevent the affair becoming a new flashpoint

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Pictures shared by Israeli law enforcement agencies show equipment for sale by Israelis to an Asian country.
Pictures shared by Israeli law enforcement agencies show equipment for sale by Israelis to an Asian country.Credit: Israel Police

The defense establishment briefed the U.S. Defense Department more than a year ago, when the first suspicions were raised about the involvement of Israeli citizens in an attempt sell secret military technology to an unnamed “country in Asia.” Against this background, Israel hopes that the serious episode will not become a source of new confrontation with the Biden administration. At the same time, the concern is that the affair will nevertheless become a subject of broad discussion in Washington, in Congress and the media.

In Israel, a gag order has been placed on some of the details, including the name of the country involved. So far, the American media hasn’t shown any interest in what’s happening here. There’s a great deal of sensitivity in the United States concerning the relations between Israel and the unnamed country; previous administrations have already complained to Israeli governments about various security transactions with it. In this case, Israel hopes that the quick report to the Americans, the sharing of details and the fact that the Defense Ministry detected the violation and dealt with it, will cool Washington’s response.

The defense establishment is emphasizing that in this case the suspicion is of an offense by a private citizen, not an evasive exercise or an attempt to mislead by the defense hierarchy. On the contrary: Some of the structural changes introduced in the Defense Ministry in the wake of previous export affairs that infuriated Washington helped uncover the new case. The suspects did not receive the necessary sales permit or export license from the Defense Ministry.

Much depends on how the administration will decide to treat the issue, based on its considerations. The fact that about 20 people have been questioned in the affair – former employees of Israel’s government defense – and that the main suspect was entangled in similar suspicions 15 years ago, will not give Israel high marks from the Americans’ perspective.

Gaining momentum

IDF Chief of Staff Avi Kochavi’s multiyear plan received two pieces of good news this month. First, the political leadership approved military procurement from the United States for the coming years, within the framework of the defense aid funds, to the tune of $9.4 billion. Afterward, approval was given for specific acquisitions by the air force in the form of aerial refueling aircraft, another F-35 squadron, precision munitions and intercept missiles for the air defense systems. In the near future a decision – which comes very late – will be made about acquiring a new Sa’ar helicopter to replace of the ancient Yasur choppers.

(L-R) IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, Head of U.S. Army's CENTCOM Command Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, and Defense Minister Benny GantzCredit: Ministry of Defense

On Wednesday, the chief of staff convened the major generals and some of the brigadier generals at the Glilot base just north of Tel Aviv, for a two-day workshop on force-building in the coming decade. Rather belatedly, and unenthusiastically, the General Staff, too understands that the shekel-based component of its budget is likely to be diminished because of the way the coronavirus has ravaged the Israeli and world economy.

Kochavi wants to formulate a clearer order of priorities for the army’s needs and find more ways to economize and to earmark funds for more important goals. The cost-saving proposals are based on work by teams appointed by Kochavi, together with responses by hundreds of career personnel to Kochavi’s request. Among the intentions: to have conscripts do tasks now done by career soldiers, to privatize various digital services and to change the character of the contracts with transportation companies. In this way the IDF hopes to save hundreds of millions of shekels in the coming years.

In the meantime, the chief of staff carried out an extensive round of appointments as part of which new chiefs were appointed for the Ground Forces Command, the navy, the intelligence and operations branches and the heads of Central and Southern Command. Kochavi was compelled to work under constraints: unusually, several major generals declined his proposed assignments. Kochavi’s insistence on appointing a general with seniority as the commander of the ground forces obligated him to juggle the original plan.

Thus, Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai, who has barely been head of Central Command for seven months, was called on to move to the Ground Forces Command. Yadai, a disciplined soldier, obeyed. Still, his stint at Central Command was so short that it probably doesn’t justify placing his framed photo with the other heads of Central Command in the IDF’s history, in the command’s Jerusalem headquarters.

Without this being the intention, the decision comes across as showing disdain for the Palestinian arena. How important could that sector be for Kochavi if Central Command becomes a revolving door where the generals of command are switched in less than a year? Yadai was installed last year in that complex post by virtue of his experience and his many skills.

Does all that change in an instant because of needs concerning the manning of the Ground Forces Command? Yadai’s intended successor in Central Command, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fox, also hasn’t had time to get used to his present role as IDF attaché to the United States. He’ll be brought back from Washington in the sensitive period of a change of administrations.

The chief of staff approved a year of study in the United States for the outgoing head of the Ground Forces Command, Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick, beginning this summer. Kochavi contemplated appointing Strick the next deputy chief of staff, but after an exchange of words with Defense Minister Gantz, it was decided that the next deputy will be Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi.

The period in the United States will delay Strick’s retirement from the IDF by a year and will make it possible for him, theoretically, to be among the candidates to become the next chief of staff, competing with Halevi and the outgoing deputy, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir. In practice, Strick seems to have little chance. The choice will apparently be between Halevi and Zamir.

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