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Ukraine War: While Some Countries Take a Moral Stance, Israel Expects an Arms Bonanza

Moral considerations must be a part of arms deals, warns an Israeli rabbi who advocates for transparency – as Israel set a record in weapons sales last year

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Ukrainian soldiers prepare to fire at Russian positions from a U.S.-supplied M777 howitzer in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region Saturday, June 18, 2022.
Ukrainian soldiers prepare to fire at Russian positions from a U.S.-supplied M777 howitzer in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region Saturday, June 18, 2022.Credit: Efrem Lukatsky /AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

More than four months after the war in Ukraine began, it’s all but forgotten by the Israeli public and media. The fighting is still raging, but with few strategic developments. Russia’s forces are enlarging the area they conquered in the eastern Donbas region, after the Ukrainians pushed back the invaders in the north, particularly around Kyiv. The dead now number in the tens of thousands, including nearly 5,000 Ukrainian civilians.

Ukraine is holding on thanks to the fighting spirit of its people and aid, in both intelligence and weapons, from several Western countries. But the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin is signaling a readiness for a long-term war of attrition regardless of the number of casualties. The war could drag on deep into the winter.

This week the head of the British Army, Gen. Patrick Sanders, presented the British armed forces’ interim conclusions on the war. Speaking at a conference of the RUSI defense and security think tank, Sanders quoted something then-Brig. Gen. Bernard Montgomery wrote in 1937, two years before the war (and seven before Montgomery was promoted to field marshal).

As Montgomery put it, “We have got to develop new methods. … There is no need to continue doing a thing merely because it has been done in the Army for the last thirty or forty years – if this is the only reason for doing it, then it is high time we changed and did something else.”

According to Sanders, the British Army must therefore prepare for a new threat, a clear and present danger. “In all my years in uniform,” he said, “I haven’t known such a clear threat to the principles of sovereignty and democracy … as the brutal aggression of President Putin and his expansionist ambitions. I believe we are living through a period in history as profound as the one that our forebears did over 80 years ago.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visit an exhibition of destroyed Russian military vehicles and weapons in Kyiv, Ukraine June 17, 2022.Credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

He added: “This is our 1937 moment. We are not at war – but we must act rapidly so that we aren’t drawn into one through a failure to contain territorial expansion. … I will do everything in my power to ensure that the British Army plays its part in averting war; I will have an answer to my grandchildren should they ever ask what I did in 2022.”

According to Sanders, the army therefore needs “ruthless prioritization.” “From now the army will have a singular focus – to mobilize to meet today’s threat and thereby prevent war in Europe,” he said; this will include weapons procurement, technology and the improvement of units’ combat preparedness.

To this end, aid to Ukraine has been greatly expanded. During the war the British have trained hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers and supplied Ukraine with thousands of antitank missiles. “It is dangerous to assume that Ukraine is a limited conflict; one of its obvious lessons is that Putin’s calculations do not always follow our logic,” Sanders said.

Russia often starts its wars badly, he noted, but the depth of its capabilities, its determination and its willingness to suffer let it win. Sanders believes that NATO must take a harder line and deter Russia. Moscow needs to know that every offensive it launches will be met by an immediate military response – not aid that arrives after the Russians have created facts on the ground.

In Israeli eyes, two things stand out here. First, the British aren’t afraid to draw lessons from the Ukraine war and respond rapidly. Second, unlike Israel, which has been vacillating for months, they don’t flinch from taking a clear moral stance against Russia’s aggression.

Masters of war

The war in Ukraine is also stirring hope of an economic bonanza for the defense industries in Israel and elsewhere. Russia’s nervous neighbors aren’t the only ones stockpiling weapons; so too are democracies in Western Europe and East Asia whose defense budgets had dwindled since the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz recently instructed his ministry’s director general, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel, to examine how production can be ramped up so that Israel’s defense exporters can supply the new demand.

Rabbi Avidan Freedman is the executive director of Yanshoof, which means owl in Hebrew and here is also an acronym for “arms exports, transparency and oversight.” Freedman lives in the settlement of Efrat near Bethlehem and teaches at the Hartman Institute High School Program in Jerusalem – maybe not the profile you’d expect of an Israeli striving to stop his country’s arms sales to dubious regimes.

Rabbi Avidan Freedman. He is executive director of Yanshoof, meaning owl in Hebrew and is also an acronym for 'arms exports, transparency and oversight.'Credit: Emil Salman

He says that about five years ago he was deeply influenced by a talk to high school teachers given by another activist in his field, Elie Yossef.

“I was astonished, I had no idea this was happening,” Freedman says. “Somehow, my Zionist education skipped these phenomena. Eli was the first who confronted me with it: the allegations that weapons made in Israel are used for genocide, for ethnic cleansing. And he’s actually on the right of the political map. It was hard to dismiss what he said.”

Freedman contacted attorney Eitay Mack, who has petitioned the High Court of Justice many times because of Israel’s arms sales to problematic regimes. In 2017, the forced displacement of the Rohingya in Myanmar escalated; rights groups warned that a mass slaughter was imminent.

Mack asked the High Court to order a halt to Israeli arms sales to Myanmar’s dictatorial regime. The Defense Ministry requested confidentiality despite reports in Haaretz and on the Myanmar military’s Facebook page that the country’s military chief had visited Israel and examined a raft of weapons systems.

Israel ended the arms sales in the winter of 2018, but in the meantime tens of thousands of civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands became refugees. Satellite images showed that villages had been burned to the ground. That wasn’t a unique event, Freedman says.

“Israel sells to all kinds of countries. I can understand that the state has an interest in exporting arms to Azerbaijan despite the character of the regime there, because it’s on Iran’s northern border,” Freedman says.

Demonstration against the sale of Israeli weapons to Azerbaijan in Jerusalem, in 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

“But what’s our interest in Myanmar? What justified supplying weapons to a murderous regime? As a citizen, I have no way to resolve the contradiction between the aid to Myanmar and moral considerations. I can’t imagine what justified selling Israeli arms to them a few months before the massacres began.

“The state says it doesn’t sell weapons to dictatorships. Actually, there are all kinds of ploys through which the weapons arrive via go-between countries. There’s no complete list of the arms deals abroad, so it’s easy for the state to deny things and hard for us to exercise oversight. We collect information from articles in the foreign media, legal petitions and reports by human rights groups, but we don’t have a complete picture.

“What’s published is the tip of the iceberg. In recent months atrocities were perpetrated in the war in Ethiopia. It was reported that Israel sold arms to the Ethiopian army via Uganda. Israel undertook to set moral boundaries and a level of transparency customary in Western countries. That has to be put into practice: making ethical considerations the decisive factor and bolstering oversight of the deals.”

Defense sources, however, say oversight has been very tight in recent years. They note, for example, the shrinking of the list of countries to which offensive cybertechnology may be sold following the explosion of the NSO affair at the beginning of this year. In 2007, a unit to oversee exports was established at the Defense Ministry amid the friction between Israel and the United States over Israeli arms deals with India and China.

“Small sales to African dictatorships are occasionally barred,” Freedman says. “But I’m not willing to accept the existing situation. That is, I share in the responsibility for these actions as an Israeli citizen. We share in the guilt and the responsibility for the actions – and on top of that, young people who served in elite units train forces in problematic countries. That’s moral corruption that rebounds on us in all sorts of ways.”

So far the efforts of Yanshoof and other activists haven’t interested the media very much. That doesn’t crimp Freedman’s optimism. “I’m convinced that change is possible,” he says.

Rafael Advanced Defense SystemsCredit: Rafael Spokesperson/Ofri Rimoni

“Most Israelis aren’t aware of it, but they’ll support closer oversight if this approach is presented to them. Our goal is to raise awareness about this matter. We’ve already found an attentive ear in a number of Knesset members from both the right and left.”

In 2021, Israeli arms exports soared to an all-time high of $11.3 billion from $7 billion the previous year. “Democracies account for 60 percent of the countries that buy Israeli weapons. Even though there are reservations about what’s happening in India, there’s no arms embargo on India and there won’t be one,” Freedman says.

“We aren’t naive, but the politicians have to say clearly that moral considerations must be taken into account when arms deals are signed. That will happen only if we mobilize public pressure. I have no problem if we sell more arms to countries like Britain and Switzerland. But Israel’s economy won’t collapse if we cancel a problematic deal with a Third World dictatorship.”

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