When an Israeli-made drone was shot down over the Black Sea this past spring in the run-up to the war between Russia and Georgia, it brought to the forefront a recurrent Israeli dilemma: By exporting its military know-how, is Israel endangering its diplomatic standing?
Israel’s military assistance to Georgia, including the doomed drone, thrust into the spotlight two competing interests — nurturing a major source of income, and cultivating ties with major powers, such as Russia, that have long-standing military ties with archenemies such as Syria and Iran.
The issue is especially sensitive in Israel, because the tight government oversight of foreign weapons sales exposes the country to the potential for diplomatic setbacks, such as the one in Georgia.
“Israel is always playing a careful balancing act between pursuing its own interest and making sure it does not harm its friends,” said Ephraim Sneh, a former deputy defense minister who has been involved in recent legislative efforts to tighten arms export rules.
Israeli officials are adamant that those private sales are being carefully vetted before they are authorized by the government. But there are indications that some changes are afoot. The Israeli press has inferred that Foreign Ministry officials were becoming more influential in an oversight committee that vets all arms sales abroad. In addition, the arms export mechanism was tightened in a 2007 law that followed complaints from Washington about arms sales to “sensitive” countries, especially China.
While most of Israel’s weapons deals are done by private companies, “not a single bullet leaves Israel without government approval,” according to Sneh. Georgia has stepped up its weapons requests in recent years, as its relations with Russia have soured. Despite Israel’s refusal to allow the sale of most offensive weaponry to Georgia, Jerusalem has been drawn into the conflict.
Israel and Georgia have enjoyed a friendly relationship since the former Soviet Republic gained its independence in 1991. The ties improved noticeably after the election in 2003 of the staunchly pro-Western president Mikhail Saakashvili. As he sought to reassert control over the two Russian-backed semi-autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Saakashvili began to buy weapons to bolster Georgia’s weak military. Willing partners included the United States and other Western countries, as well as Israel, which since 2000 has sold an estimated $300 million worth of weapons to Georgia.
The business relationship was facilitated by two Georgian ministers who are Jewish and fluent in Hebrew: Reintegration Minister Temur Yakobashvili and, more important, Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili, 30. While Israel did not agree to sell tanks, planes or missiles, it did authorize the sale of infantry weapons, rockets and night-vision communications, as well as the upgrade of Georgia’s Su-25 ground-attack fighters. It also allowed the sale of intelligence surveillance equipment, including Skylark and Hermes 450 unmanned planes. Those drones would soon become a major issue as tensions from Georgia’s breakaway regions simmered.
In the past six months, the pro-Moscow government of Abkhazia claims to have downed seven Georgian drones. Georgia has denied the reports, except in one instance. On April 20, one of its Israeli-made Hermes 450s was shot down off the coast from Abkhazia. Georgia accused Russia of downing it, a charge supported by a United Nations probe, but Moscow has denied this.
Russia then sent Israel’s foreign minister a letter of protest, asking that it stop supplying military hardware to Georgia. The letter pointed out that Russia had sometimes heeded Israel’s requests to refrain from supplying weapons systems to states seen as threatening to Israel, according to a lengthy exposé in the weekend magazine of the Israeli daily Ma’ariv. The Foreign Ministry then asked the Defense Ministry to cancel the authorizations to sell offensive weapons to Georgia and to allow only the sale of defensive weapons, as well as military training, to proceed, Ma’ariv reported.
Israeli officials are quick to point out that they wisely rejected repeat requests for arms from Georgia in the months leading up to the outbreak of hostilities with Russia in early August. The most ambitious one involved the purchase of 200 Merkava tanks, which was vetoed by the Defense Ministry.
Georgian officials, however, publicly denied that Israel had cut back on weapons sales. Moreover, they showered praise on Israel’s military help after the beginning of the hostilities last month, with Saakashvili stating at a press conference that “Israeli weapons have been very effective.” Minister Yakobashvili told Israel Army Radio that “Israel should be proud of its military, which trained Georgian soldiers.” In the end, Georgia’s army proved to be no match for the Russian military, which has repeatedly accused Western powers and Israel of arming Georgia.
Anatoly Nogovitsyn, Russia’s deputy army chief, said during a press conference in mid-August that Israel was providing the Georgian military with mines, explosive charges, special explosives for clearing minefields and eight kinds of unmanned aerial vehicles. But he also indicated that some sales had been canceled. “In 2007, Israeli experts trained Georgian commandos in Georgia and there were plans to supply heavy weaponry, electronic weapons, tanks and other arms at a later date, but the deal didn’t work out,” Nogovitsyn told reporters.
The Hermes drones were sold to Georgia by Elbit Systems, an Israeli manufacturer whose representatives in Georgia were former minister and Tel Aviv mayor Ronnie Milo and his brother Shlomo, a former director-general of Israel Military Industries. The Milo brothers were also reportedly involved in the sale of a rocket system called Links, which is manufactured by IMI, as well as in the aborted Merka tank deal. They have declined to comment on their Georgia dealings.
In addition, several former senior Israeli army officers have been involved in training Georgian army infantry battalions. One such officer, Gal Hirsch, resigned from the army two years ago, after being heavily criticized by an official inquiry into the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah that precipitated what is now known as the Second Lebanon War. Hirsch then set up a security company called Defense Shields and received approval from the Defense Ministry to train elite anti-terrorist units in the Georgian army. The effort was undertaken in tandem with Global C S T, a company owned by retired major general Israel Ziv, and Nirtal, a company headed by reserve officer Nir Shaul.
Although the companies announced that they had completed their projects in Georgia before August 7, the date the fighting began, the presence of Israeli trainers and weaponry has been noted in Russia, among anti-Israel circles and even by Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, who described the Russian military victory over Georgia as a defeat for Israel. “Gal Hirsch, who was defeated in Lebanon, went to Georgia, and they, too, lost because of him.” He made the remarks last month in a speech marking the two-year anniversary of the Lebanon War.
In recent weeks, Israeli officials have gone out of their way to smooth the tensions with Russia over the war with Georgia. In addition to Russia’s diplomatic and economic clout, its weapons sales have been a major headache for Israel. The most immediate concern is Russia’s sale to Iran of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems, which would help Iran defend its nuclear installations from aerial attacks. Likewise, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Russia in the wake of the Georgian war has fueled concerns in Jerusalem that Russia was retaliating against Israel by stepping up military support to Damascus.
Despite the diplomatic backlash with Russia, Sneh believes that Israel “handled the Georgia situation properly” and that it had carefully vetted the arms sales “to ensure that they would not have strategic consequences. It just so happens that a war broke out.”