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6 Dec, 2008 07:05

Arms trade a double-edged sword for Israel

It’s one of the perils of the arms trade which humiliates governments and outrages anti-war activists. A political nightmare, and potential humanitarian one, where a country sells weapons to an ally – later to find those same arms being used ag

Despite the risks, the arms trade is a key part of many leading countries’ economies. The profits are huge, the stakes high. But the dangers of something going wrong are even bigger.

The biggest players are the USA, the UK, Russia and France, but smaller countries like Israel are also heavily involved. Retired Israeli General, Yossi Peled, believes it’s vital for his country.

“It’s part of the Israeli economy,” he says. “Unfortunately because we have such experience on the battlefield which means a lot – so it gives Israel a very high reputation.”
This reputation is also respected by Israel’s enemies. The small nation that wants to play in the big league sometimes sells weapons to regimes nobody else wants to deal with. 

It’s a strange irony, but today Israeli soldiers can be killed by weapons their own country sold.

Many Russian-made tanks were captured by the Israeli army in 1982 during the Lebanon war. Many of those, after being upgraded in Israeli factories, are today back in Lebanon in better condition.

The Shah’s regime in Iran – ousted by a revolution in 1979 – was a good partner for the Israelis: a friendly nearby leader with plenty of petrol dollars, who could buy the best Israeli goods.

But after the Khomeini revolution, Iran came to be Israel’s enemy Number One.

But business is business among those who deal in arms. And so it happened that Israel sold weaponry to Iran, which ended up being fired at Israeli soldiers by Palestinians. 

Tzvi Goldfarb, an expert on Iran, says: “It was mainly for economic reasons that Israel sold weapons to the Khomeini regime. Sometimes there was a special request from the American government to do so. America did not want to dirty her hands and be directly involved in selling weapons to Iran, so Israel did it.”

Another big friend of Israel was the apartheid regime in South Africa. Boycotted by many countries, South Africa desperately needed friends. It found in Israel a partner willing to help keep the white regime in power. But it all changed when Nelson Mandela became president.

“We know of at least one weapons system that was developed with South Africa's help. It’s a tiny plane, without a pilot, that is able to attack. Today it serves in the Iranian army,” says Tzvi Goldfarb.
Despite the murky sides to the business, Israeli government officials say their country is a very responsible arms supplier.

But dealing in weapons of war can mean involvement in conflicts or wars fought by your business partners. One of Israel’s customers is Georgia – the Israeli government supported the government of Mikhail Saakashvill right up to the August war with Russia. 

It means that, yet again, questions are being asked about weapons ending up in the wrong hands.