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From Missiles to Cyber, Israel Must Stop Arming Brutal Regimes. It's a Jewish Imperative

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When Israeli weapons are placed, with government approval, into the hands of known human rights violators, Israel destroys its credibility as a moral actor, it engenders enmity on the part of people fighting for democracy, liberty and basic human rights, and it makes friends in all the wrong places.
When Israeli weapons are placed, with government approval, into the hands of known human rights violators, Israel destroys its credibility as a moral actorCredit: Reuters/Stringer

Prime Minister Bennett and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid: Recently, Shalev Hulio, when he was still CEO of the NSO Group, sent you a confidential letter asking that the government intervene in order to remove the U.S. sanctions placed on his cyber surveillance company.

Those sanctions were imposed in the wake of the Pegasus spyware scandal, as a result of their classification as a company "engaging in activities that are contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States."

As an ordinary Israeli citizen implicated by my government’s official policies, I couldn’t agree more. There is an urgent need for government intervention. But surely not in the way Hulio intended.

The last thing we need is a shallow, face-saving official intervention that would allow NSO and others to quietly continue their work enabling the targeting of political opposition figures, journalists and human rights activists. Were Israel to agree to act as a lobbyist to the Biden administration on behalf of NSO, it would merely be preparing the ground for more Israeli support of anti-democratic forces in the world, and for the next diplomatic crisis with a U.S. administration that has defined global democracy and human rights as a national interest.

Instead, what is long overdue is an intervention that will begin to solve the core problem. Israel needs to pass a law prohibiting the export of weapons to regimes engaged in gross violations of human rights, and to empower a mechanism that will make that evaluation in an effective and transparent manner. 

Israeli cyber firm NSO Group offices in the Arava Desert, southern Israel, July.Credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Among the top ten weapons exporters in the world, accounting for 90 percent of all weapons exports, only Russia (2nd place) and Israel (8th place) have ratified neither the international Arms Trade Treaty, like the UK, Germany, and France, nor passed their own internal legislation prohibiting exports to regimes responsible for those gross human rights violations, as the United States has.

Such a law would not only align us with the policies and interests of the U.S. and all other western countries, it would realign us with our own long-term interests.

After a decade in which weapons diplomacy was a hallmark of foreign policy, the time has come for Israel to realize that, while selling weapons to autocrats might score us some very short-term diplomatic gains, and certainly makes certain private Israelis very, very wealthy, it comes at a heavy cost.

When Israeli weapons are placed, with government approval, into the hands of known human rights violators, Israel destroys its credibility as a moral actor, it engenders enmity on the part of people fighting for democracy, liberty and basic human rights, and it makes friends in all the wrong places. 

Indeed, when asked about this question in the past, Foreign Minister Lapid, you repeatedly voiced your opposition to the sale of arms to murderous regimes, and promised that, when you came to power, Yesh Atid would act to fix this travesty.

More fundamentally, such a law would realign our own moral compass as a Jewish and democratic state. While we are used to grappling with tensions and contradictions between the "Jewish" and "democratic" elements of Israel's character, this issue is remarkable in the way that the value of human rights, and the need for moral red lines, is championed not only in the name of liberal democracy, but also in the name of Jewish values and based on Jewish texts.

ARAD Assault Rifles manufactured by Israel Weapons Industries (IWI) are displayed at an arms fair near Paris this monthCredit: BENOIT TESSIER/ REUTERS

When prominent right-wing religious figures like Rabbi Haim Druckman and Rabbi Shlomo Aviner express the moral urgency of a law supported by left-wing, secular Meretz - it is clear that we are dealing with something so consensual and basic to our identity that it must not be ignored.

For all these reasons, Prime Minister Bennett and Foreign Minister Lapid, your government must intervene, so that in the future, neither NSO, nor any other Israeli company will be put under sanctions for supporting the gross violation of human rights, because the Israeli government has joined the ranks of nations that prevent their arms from reaching such regimes.

This is a policy change that the uniquely heterogenous "government of change" that you have created is uniquely mandated, and capable, to bring about.

Avidan Freedman, a rabbi and educator at the Hartman Institute’s high school and post high school programs in Jerusalem, is a founder of Yanshoof, a new advocacy organization dedicated to galvanizing public support for Israeli legislation that sets moral limits on weapons exports

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