Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel thought it would be a nice going-away present for visiting Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev: an unmanned helicopter used for agricultural research.
Now it emerges that Israel may run into trouble with the United States for handing over the aircraft, if it is proved that it has been developed with American technology. Moreover, a diplomatic tiff may be brewing as well with Moscow, since the helicopter was given to the Russians without some of its technological features.
When Medvedev toured the government’s Volcani Institute in central Israel last week, Ariel asked him if he wanted the aircraft on display there, which costs 200,000 shekels ($51,900); sources on hand reported that the visitor said yes. Ariel then turned to his director general, Shlomo Ben Eliyahu, who agreed to make the arrangements.
For its part, Israel had good reason to show Medvedev every courtesy. The prime minister was paying a three-day visit to the country to sign a wide-ranging agreement to help the Russian dairy industry with know-how, technology and services provided by Israeli companies and the Volcani Institute – a deal worth as much as $15 billion.
However, it seems that the unmanned aircraft wasn’t actually Ariel’s to give – it belongs to Volcani, not the Agriculture Ministry – and its value exceeds by a factor of more than 60 the sum that government officials are allowed to spend on official presents. When Russian officials came to collect the helicopter, they were left waiting impatiently until the flustered Volcani staff received permission from an unnamed official to release it.
"The model of the drone that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev received as a gift from Agriculture Minister Ariel was given without the operating system and remote control," said sources close to the institute on Monday.
Apparently the staff refused to hand over the remote-control equipment and a thermal camera, costing an estimated 100,000 shekels ($26,000), which the institute had installed on the aircraft. The Russians have already asked Volcani for these parts and if they do not receive them, the newly inked agricultural deal with Israel may be at risk.
At the same time, there could be trouble if the aircraft is found to be equipped with American technology that has not been approved for export to Russia by Israel's Defense Ministry. Equipment that is considered to be "dual use" – that is, to have both civilian and military applications – must be approved for exports in advance by the ministry.
Such approval is intended to prevent advanced technology developed by America and other countries from reaching unfriendly nations, and/or from being re-exported in some fashion in another product without formal permission. In the past such violations have led to the dismissal of senior Israeli officials, including a Defense Ministry director general.
“This is a completely ridiculous story,” said an Israeli official, who asked not to be named.
After news of the affair leaked, the Agriculture Ministry agreed to buy the institute a new drone – that is, at the Israeli taxpayers’ expense.
The ministry also sought to downplay the amount by which Ariel had exceeded the ceiling on official gifts, pointing out that Israel stands to benefit handsomely from the agreement the two countries signed.
In the first phase of the accord, Russia will invest $1.3 billion in a pilot project, with Israeli companies getting contracts to build, consult and guide the new facilities.
The Volcani Center said in response to a request from Haaretz: "We are unable to comment on the matter."
The Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry also did not respond.
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