Georgia's Israeli arms point Russia to Iran
By Peter Hirschberg
JERUSALEM - With the eruption of fighting between Russia and Georgia, Israel
has found itself in an awkward position as a result of its arms sales to
Georgia. Israel is now caught between its friendly relations with Georgia and
its fear that the continued sale of weaponry will spark Russian retribution in
the form of increased arms sales to Iran and Syria.
After fighting broke out late last week between Georgia and Russia over the
breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Israel's Foreign Ministry
over the weekend recommended suspending the sale of all weapons and
defense-related equipment to Georgia, the daily Ha'aretz newspaper reported.
The paper quoted an unnamed senior official saying that Israel
needed "to be very careful and sensitive these days. The Russians are selling
many arms to Iran and Syria and there is no need to offer them an excuse to
sell even more advanced weapons."
Israel's immediate concern is that Russia will proceed with the sale of the
S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Iran, which would help it defend its
nuclear installations from aerial attack. Israel, like the US, believes that
Iran's nuclear program is aimed at developing a bomb, and Israeli leaders have
refused to rule out the possibility of a pre-emptive strike aimed at derailing
Iran's nuclear aspirations.
Israel recently conducted a major aerial exercise over the eastern
Mediterranean and Greece that was widely viewed as a rehearsal for a possible
strike against Iran's nuclear installations. But with the US and Europe
resorting to diplomatic pressure in the form of sanctions to deter Iran, Israel
is loathe to anger Russia, which until now has opposed harsher sanctions on
Israel's relations with Georgia have been close, partly because there is a
large Georgian Jewish community in Israel. In recent years, ties have also
taken on a military dimension, with military industries in Israel supplying
Georgia with some US$200 million worth of equipment since 2000. This has
included remotely piloted planes, rockets, night-vision equipment, other
electronic systems and training by former senior Israeli officers.
"Israel should be proud of its military, which trained Georgian soldiers,"
Georgian Minister Temur Yakobashvili told Israel's Army Radio in Hebrew shortly
after the fighting erupted.
Israel is not a major supplier of arms to Georgia, with the US and France
supplying Tbilisi with most of its weaponry. But the arms transfers have
attracted media attention partly because of the role played by some
high-profile Israeli figures, including former Tel Aviv mayor Roni Milo, who
conducted business in Georgia on behalf of Israel Military Industries.
According to media reports, Brigadier General Gal Hirsch, a senior commander in
the 2006 Lebanon war who resigned after the release of a highly critical report
on the way the war was conducted, served as an adviser to Georgian security
Further attention was drawn to the Israel-Georgia arms trade earlier this year
when a Russian jet shot down an Israeli-made drone being operated by the
Even though weapons transfers were modest in scope, Russian diplomats began
increasingly relaying to Israel their annoyance over its military aid to
Georgia, including the special forces training provided by security experts.
Israel decided about a year ago to limit military exports to defensive
equipment and training.
New contracts weren't approved as the arms sales were scaled back. Georgia's
request for 200 advanced Israeli-made Merkava tanks, for example, was turned
There were reports in Israel that the sale of the tanks didn't go through
because of a disagreement over the commission that was to be paid as part of
the deal. But Amos Yaron, the former director general of the Defense Ministry,
insisted it had to do with "security-diplomatic considerations" - a clear
reference to the sensitivity of the arms sales to Georgia. Israel, Yaron added,
didn't want "to harm Russian interests too much".
Asked about the motivation to initially engage in the sale of weaponry to
Georgia despite concerns it might anger Russia, Yaron replied: "We did see that
there was potential for a conflagration in the region but Georgia is a friendly
state, it's supported by the US, and so it was difficult to refuse."