Netanyahu Allows Israeli Arms Dealers to Fly to India, Despite COVID Lockdown

Avi Bar-Eli
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Workers setup the inaugural area for the 13th edition of the Aero India Show 2021 at the Yelahanka Airforce Station in Bangalore
Workers setup the inaugural area for the 13th edition of the Aero India Show 2021 at the Yelahanka Airforce Station in BangaloreCredit: MANJUNATH KIRAN / AFP
Avi Bar-Eli

Senior Israeli defense officials waited with bated breath for 24 hours. Until Sunday evening, the committee that grants special permission to fly in and out of the country during the coronavirus shutdown of Ben-Gurion International Airport refused to allow a group of about 80 Israelis to depart Monday on a private charter flight from Tel Aviv to India.

Nobody is going to make a fool of the health and transportation ministries. They weren’t going to exempt anyone from the lockdown, certainly not for commercial reasons and certainly not at a time when they are being flooded with requests by Israelis stranded abroad for special permission to return based on humanitarian grounds.

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It took someone to call Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office directly and the matter was resolved in short order. In the dead of night, an email was sent to Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kish that tersely stated that “the prime minister has approved the delegation’s departure.”

The purpose: attendance at an arms fair in India. The condition: members of the delegation must be fully vaccinated and each passenger will have to be given “a personal suit” in order to comply with COVID restrictions (whatever that might be). Signed by: Brig. Gen. Avi Blut, Netanyahu’s military secretary.

The Aero India aerospace and defense industry exhibition is considered the second largest aviation fair in the world after the Paris Air Show. It is held every two years under the auspices of the Indian Defense Ministry at an air base in Bangalore. India is one of the largest weapons customers in Asia and is also a strategic client of Israel’s military industries.

How important to Israel is the Asian arms market? Israel exports $7.5 billion in arms a year (representing 10 percent of its industrial exports). Forty percent of those sales are to Asia and around 50 percent of the sales are in sectors participating in Aero India – flight, missiles, radar and aerial defense.

The process of setting up the Israeli pavilions has been ongoing for a year. Representatives of the Defense Ministry’s International Defense Cooperation Directorate had been due to join the delegation, but then the most recent COVID spike hit Israel and the current lockdown was imposed.

The Defense Ministry withdrew its plans to attend and abandoned involvement in arranging the trip. But the three largest defense industry firms in the country – Israel Aerospace Industries, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Elbit Systems – weren’t about to forgo the opportunity, certainly not when their major foreign competitors had already arrived in Bangalore. That’s all they needed following the cuts in defense assistance, the drop in the value of the dollar and Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. presidential election.

When the Defense Ministry pulled out, the firms decided to charter a plane from Arkia Israel Airlines and still fly their representatives to India. After the Prime Minister’s Office overruled the earlier refusal to give them permission, a planeload of 50 passengers, including employees and security staff, are due to leave for India on Monday.

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