Israel's Immoral Arms Export Must End

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Protestors hold placards and a banner during a protest attended by about a dozen people outside the offices of the Israeli cyber firm NSO Group near Tel Aviv, last week.
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s trip to Paris last week to manage the NSO crisis, and the visits by government representatives’ to the company’s offices in Herzliya, were meant to assuage global public opinion, rebuff international criticism and create the image that the defense establishment cares about human rights abroad.

It’s an illusion, a charade. Successive Israeli governments, Labor and Likud alike, always preferred, in the mercurial name of “national interests,” selling arms – including particularly lethal offensive weapons – over ethical considerations. Legislators and the courts, which repeatedly waved off petitions seeking to change Israel’s military export policy, are partners to this cynical approach.

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Israel’s arms industry was founded to fulfill a vital need: the building of a strong army to defend the country. This need regained importance when the supply of Soviet weaponry was halted after the 1948 War of Independence and the military struggled to obtain weapons from the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. When France, then a strategic partner, levied an arms embargo – just before the 1967 Six Day War – against Israel, the government realized it must establish a modern, independent arms industry that would reduce its dependence on outside suppliers. This step dovetailed with the effort to be at the forefront of science and technology, helping Israel preserve its military edge over all enemies.

At a certain point, the tables turned. Israel went from producing weapons for itself to exporting arms. It justified exports as contributing to employment, GDP and Israel’s foreign interests. As a result, Israel became one of the world’s top 10 arms exporters. In this endeavor, it never loathed any methods, placed no limits on itself, had no inhibitions and put its conscience in storage.

Israel sold arms to the worst regimes. In the 1970s, its military industries sold ships, missiles, planes, artillery and ammunition to the apartheid regime in South Africa. Israel collaborated with it in nuclear technology and trained its security services. The disgusting cooperation between the state that arose out of the Holocaust’s ashes and the white racist regime, which sided with the Nazis in World War II, will forever live in infamy.

Israel at that time also supplied arms to brutal dictators in South and Central America like Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Argentina’s military junta, Honduras and Guatemala, known for their atrocities and slaughter.

Israel often ignored UN decisions forbidding arms sales and military aid to be used in civil wars in Africa and Asia. The bar here for military exports has certainly been immeasurably lower than it’s been in the European Union and other Western democracies. Over the last 15 years, in the wake of Israel’s advanced technological research and development, the emphasis in military exports switched from weapons systems to sophisticated tools based on high-tech, like drones, robots, military fire control, avionics and cyberweapons. As the Pegasus case proves, these tools can be no less lethal.

And yet, the explanations and excuses remain unchanged. We obey the law; if we didn’t sell, others would; the exports boost the economy; it’s important for the military and for foreign relations. So it’s hard to believe the government’s decision to establish a committee to review NSO’s weapons sales and their abuse by the police and security services of dubious regimes in Africa, Asia and Central America, or even in semi-democratic regimes like Hungary and India, will lead to substantial change.

The NSO has essentially created a balance of deterrence with the defense establishment. The Defense Ministry and the Mossad encouraged sales of Pegasus and cyberweapons from other companies like Cellebrite, Verint Systems and Candiru to countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan – states that Israel views as strategic assets, especially in the struggle against Iran, and from which it wants diplomatic, intelligence and military returns. NSO and the others know too many of the defense establishment’s secrets, and they are not prepared to be a scapegoat to satisfy public opinion.

What is truly needed from Israel is not a superficial, indifferent investigation into one cybersecurity company or another’s behavior. Instead, what’s needed is a thorough review of military export policy, one that would set criteria clearly delineating what and to whom sales are forbidden. The new policy must fall in line with Western democracies, combining national and security interests with considerations of ethics and human rights – not only those of Jews and Israelis.

For this task, what’s needed is a committee that includes independent experts, not just security establishment figures, which is like leaving the cat to guard the cream. Such a committee should include not only Defense Ministry, Foreign Ministry and Mossad officials but also human rights organization representatives, jurists, ethicists and historians.

And it won’t happen.  

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