The Israeli Military-Industrial-State Complex

On our last radio episode, Persephone made a case that countries that sell weapons around the world as a big revenue source have a conflict of interest on fostering peace, in that it might affect their export revenues.

In many of the British examples we discussed, the sales are generally from private firms. In the United States, it’s a mix of private sales versus government discounted arms transfers and surplus equipment sales to allied armed forces, for strategic and fiscal reasons. A country’s government has an especially strong incentive to sell weapons to other countries when it devotes significant expenditures to research and development of the weapons. It’s a way to make some of it back.

Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, published an article today on the Israeli defense industry’s ramped-up production and foreign sales efforts during the recent bombardment, shielding, and ground operations against the Gaza Strip. Although there have been some major privatizations in recent years, much of the country’s defense industry is still composed of wholly-government-owned state enterprises. They have long been burdened with debt and were facing budget cuts. That means that if the companies — and by extension their government owners — were going to turn things around financially, they had a strong incentive to sell a lot of weapons to other countries. And as the article explores, through repeated examples, nothing sells a new weapons technology like real-life combat tests.

Some of the companies were even rushing brand new products off the assembly lines and into the field. And even as they were being deployed in the Gaza Strip, purchasers were flocking to Israel for explicit sales pitches, Haaretz reported:

“For the defense industries this campaign is like drinking a very strong energy drink — it simply gives them tremendous forward momentum,” says Barbara Opall-Rome, Israel bureau chief for the U.S. magazine Defense News. “Combat is like the highest seal of approval when it comes to the international markets. What has proven itself in battle is much easier to sell. Immediately after the operation, and perhaps even during, all kinds of delegations arrive here from countries that appreciate Israel’s technological capabilities and are interested in testing the new products.”

From new light arms ammunition to new tank shells and tank defenses, Israel’s private defense firms (which have excellent lobbyists and ties to the government) and public state defense companies (which are expected to minimize balance sheet losses and turn a profit for the government if possible), there’s a lot of really warped policy incentives in favor of pursuing a very aggressive, even hair-trigger “defense policy” in the Palestinian Territories.

Similarly, with highly experimental, very expensive, and very re-sellable technologies like a missile defense system co-designed by a state defense company, it could be suggested that goading an entity into firing daily barrages of missiles at a shield that will catch virtually all of them is an excellent way to prove to buyer countries that they should purchase the system for their own defense needs.

A country with big, financially struggling, government-owned defense firms puts itself under a lot of pressure to enable situations that will allow for combat demonstrations to foreign observers who can buy products and put money back in the government coffers (or at least reduce the need for direct budget expenditures). It’s possible to resist that pressure, but it’s there.

It’s hard to make peace when your finances are aligned in favor of making war. That’s true to some extent with the United States and many of the other countries we mentioned on our radio segment. But it’s particularly worrying with regard to Israel, where government and the defense industry are even more intertwined.

The case for including Hamas in peace talks


In another excellent article Vartan Oskanian, the former Foreign Minister of Armenia, makes the case against excluding Hamas from Israel-Palestine talks. Although he is primarily focusing on the immediate need for a long-term ceasefire in Gaza, I think most of the arguments can be expanded to cover final peace talks overall — and why Hamas must be included.

Here are some of the points he makes, although I suggest everyone read the full essay, which is extremely thoughtful and balanced:

What’s happening in Gaza is not simply deplorable. It is – or ought to be – unacceptable. There cannot be any legal, humanitarian or logical justification. Missiles, underground tunnels and even Hamas’s professed determination to eliminate Israel do not justify the kind of collective and indiscriminate punishment of a civilian population in which the state of Israel is engaged.

Why? Because none of those Hamas goals and actions have had or can have any profound national security and existential threat for Israel and both Hamas and Israel know it. Hamas cannot destroy Israel, and Israel knows that it cannot reoccupy Gaza and eradicate Hamas at a cost that Israelis are willing to bear. So each side uses the other for its own goals.

Hamas presents a convenient bogeyman for the right-wing Israelis opposed to a two-state solution. Hamas’ hostile actions and loud threats provide ample reason to argue why Palestinians cannot be trusted in peace.

Hamas’ existence and legitimacy are derived from an ideology and strategy anchored on confrontation and resistance. The movement represents to many Palestinians an effort to preserve their national identity and pride by resisting and defying the occupation.

This is absolutely not to say that firing rockets into Israel, kidnapping Israeli citizens or blowing them up are acceptable or justifiable. The challenge here is to understand and appreciate the timing of events, their context, the proportionality of actions and each side’s vision about their own people and the future of the entire region.

I also found compelling his observation on the mixed signals Israel and its Western allies have sent on the notion of self-governance and democracy:

Meanwhile, the Western promotion of democracy in Palestine has taken different twists and turns. At one point, elections were resisted out of concern that it would enhance Yasser Arafat’s standing and image among the Palestinians. His death was hailed as an opportunity for the realisation of a vision of a democratic Palestinian state. It seems that for observers, or interested bystanders, elections are fine as long as they do not go the wrong way.

I flagged that passage in particular because I have noticed that Israel’s government tends to deal only with those it wishes to deal with, and once someone else takes the place of the previous government — as typically happens with democracies — everything falls apart, as if Israel cannot possibly adjust and move forward.

The reality of international relations, of course, is that we do not always get our preferred partner next door through democratic or other homegrown processes. A liberal democracy, one hopes, would seek to promote liberal democracy elsewhere, even while recognizing that might be the result. Instead, Israel accepts “realist” foreign policy’s aversion to the notion that democratization of neighbors is a high-priority/desirable goal, but then strips out the more critical recognition that countries have to accept the cards they are dealt with regard to their neighbors and not pretend that they have a different hand because they’d like that one better.

With the Palestinian territories, this mindset seems to manifest itself in recent Israeli policy as a determination since early 2006 to refuse to let the elected government take office after going to the trouble of setting up a system of democratic elections for the Palestinian territories. Why take this stance? One element seems to be a refusal to acknowledge that negotiating with the leaders chosen by the Palestinian people probably would produce more sustainable outcomes than a deal secured by leaders with no popular mandate. But the culprit, in part, also seems to be Israel’s (relatively successful) history of avoiding dealing with democratically-selected leaders generally, in favor of (more predictable) self-selecting authoritarian governments, who can be counted on not to change their minds suddenly or cave to pressure from various constituencies as easily.

From an alliance with the government of apartheid South Africa to various official and secret partnerships and negotiations with authoritarian-leaning or absolutist governments in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey over the decades, it is clear that Israel feels far more comfortable dealing with either foreign governments that Israel chooses or foreign governments that nobody chooses. The arrival of the democratic process (and decline in military rule) in its neighbors makes Israel’s leaders very skittish, as declining relations with Turkey indicated as its military was sidelined, or as tensions with Egypt between military governments suggested. Today, this results in refusing to deal with Hamas and only talking to Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas, whose presidency in the Palestinian territories is now in its 9th year since elections were held.

However, with the other countries, the threat to Israel came from state military forces and therefore securing their support via deals with authoritarian rulers made a kind of strategic sense, which has held up so far, even if it will probably eventually backfire. If, for example, the Egyptian people (or even average soldiers) continue to oppose Israel — which they do — they aren’t going to go rogue en masse and invade Israel all by themselves. That would only happen with orders from the top. Thus, a self-perpetuating dictatorship at the top is viewed as a safer partner.

However, the threat from the Palestinians, as with Lebanon, is not from state actors and regular armed forces but rather from a popular insurgency. Thus, even handpicking the government wouldn’t change the nature of the threat to Israel. Without popular support for any Palestinian leader making a deal, a deal will be meaningless. Whoever makes a deal with Israel is going to have to be able to go back and sell it to their base, which means they have to have a base. A representative during negotiations must actually represent someone. Israel wishing for a different popular choice of representatives from the Palestinian side won’t change that reality.

Indeed, this brings us back to the larger problem in Israeli policy of a desire to be in control of not just the content and terms of negotiations, but also who is participating in them. Like it or not, the Palestinians very narrowly elected a plurality of Hamas MPs in the January 2006 legislative elections, which implied Hamas would be representing or co-representing the Palestinians in ongoing talks, as the leading party in the Palestinian cabinet. That was the choice of the same voters who will be needed later to get on board with any peace deal. Nevertheless, within 5 days of the election — before Hamas had even taken office — Israel and Western backers announced heavy sanctions on the Palestinian Authority (and the indefinite seizure of $600 million per year in Palestinian tax revenue).

It was stated that the sanctions would not be lifted unless Hamas agreed to conditions previously negotiated by the unelected PLO without their consent, or anyone’s consent, really. That demand on Hamas was a particularly hard pill to swallow for a group formed in the late 1980s as an alternative to the PLO and elected in opposition to PLO/Fatah corruption. It was also, I would argue, a fairly hasty and short-sighted move, given that rocket attacks from Gaza had fallen dramatically in the 5 months between the Israeli withdrawal from the Strip and the 2006 Palestinian elections — and given the reality that most of the key hardliners in the Hamas political leadership had been killed in the preceding few years and replaced by more moderate figures, who expressed an openness to compromise. Read more

Reviewing Kosovo in 1999 (versus Gaza in 2014)

The United States is fairly habitual about being inconsistent on where and when it intervenes militarily in violent world crises. Some of that is unfortunately unavoidable and some of it is a lot more troubling. 2013 and 2014 have seen some of the most unfolding dramatic crises without armed U.S. intervention in quite some time (and in nearly all cases, I would suggest that this is for the best, from a variety of angles).

Although British Prime Minister Tony Blair notably made the more elegant case for NATO intervening in the Yugoslavia/Kosovar crisis in 1999 (against the Serbian-led Yugoslavian government and in support of the ethnically Albanian population in the Kosovo province), President Bill Clinton also had to make the case to the American public.

Here is how the beginning of that speech unfolded (my emphasis added): Read more