Israeli Foreign Ministry Opposes Restrictions on Arms Sales to Human Rights Violators

Bill sponsored by left-wing Meretz party would make it harder for Israel to sell arms to human rights violators; Foreign Ministry says current safeguards are sufficient.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
Rebel fighters hold up their rifles as they walk in front of a bushfire in a rebel-controlled territory in Upper Nile State, South Sudan February 13, 2014.
Rebel fighters hold up their rifles as they walk in front of a bushfire in a rebel-controlled territory in Upper Nile State, South Sudan February 13, 2014. Credit: Reuters
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The Foreign Ministry objects to a new bill to place restrictions on Israeli arms sales to foreign countries implicated in severe human rights violations — even though the bill would strengthen the ministry's role in such sales. The proposed amendment to the law regulating defense exports, sponsored by Meretz Knesset members Tamar Zandberg and Zehava Galon, will be discussed Sunday by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation.

The Law For Oversight of Defense Exports, passed in 2007, greatly strengthened the Foreign Ministry’s role in defense exports. The law states that in all weapons sales to a foreign country, the Defense Ministry must consult with the Foreign Ministry — to bring Israeli foreign policy and diplomatic considerations into the decision on the sale. The law gives the Foreign Ministry almost complete veto power over such sales, with only the security cabinet having authority to override Foreign Ministry objections and approve the sale.

Meretz lawmakers MK Tamar Zandberg and MK Zehava Galon in the Knesset.Credit: Michal Patal

One reason for the law's enactment was a series of severe crises caused by Defense Ministry weapons deals that bypassed the Foreign Ministry. The best known cases were the sales of drones and intelligence-gathering planes to China. The two agreements were canceled due to heavy U.S. pressure, and caused great friction between the Defense Ministry and Pentagon.

The proposed amendment states that the Defense Ministry will not grant a defense export license if the Foreign Ministry informs it that the immediate or end user of the weapons is the armed force of a foreign nation that has committed severe human rights violations. The amendment does allow export licenses when the Foreign Ministry determines the foreign country is acting to bring those responsible for the violations to justice.

Though the law would increase the Foreign Ministry’s influence in weapons exports, the ministry opposes the amendment. A ministry legal opinion, which Haaretz has obtained, states, “The Foreign Ministry gives great importance to the aspect of human rights in the destination nations for the defense exports, and this component is taken into account already within the framework of the Foreign Ministry’s policies” — which are presented to the Defense Ministry before it grants defense export licenses.

Zandberg said on Saturday that the Foreign Ministry’s position is to have its cake and eat it too, and is falsely protesting its innocence. “After all, if the present law had prevented defense exports that afterwards were used for violating human rights, we would not be seeing pictures of soldiers in South Sudan armed with Israeli weapons. The secrecy surrounding the licenses provided for defense exports and the fact that only a small minority of these requests are rejected, shows the difficulty inherent in the present oversight of the matter,” she said.

The amendment authorizes the Foreign Ministry to receive all relevant information the Defense Ministry has on the countries buying arms from Israel, and requires it to collect information from individuals and NGOs about human rights violations in those countries. Zandberg and Galon also propose that the Foreign Ministry publish on its website the list of countries in which weapons sales are banned because of human rights violations.

Foreign Ministry: Don't need new law

The ministry legal opinion states that the monitoring of human rights violations by foreign security forces is “important and deserves continual attention by the Foreign Ministry and all the bodies participating in the oversight,” but it is not important enough to set in law.

The ministry added that the only international limitation on weapons exports is a UN Security Council arms embargo. Yet Zandberg and Galon noted that the Security Council very rarely imposes arms embargoes because of the political forces influencing its decisions, thus many Western countries, including the United States, have passed their own laws making human rights violations relevant in weapons export decisions.

The Foreign Ministry's legal opinion also objects to the clause in the bill requiring it to collect information on human rights violations from foreign sources, saying this “could well bring about politicization” of the approval process.

The ministry also opposes the bill's requirement that it publish the list of nations banned from Israeli weapons exports for human rights reasons. “Revealing information concerning the policy on the defense exports of the State of Israel is opposed to the interests of Israel, and by nature has implications on the bilateral and multilateral relations with diplomatic, security and economic aspects with the destination nations and other nations.”

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