UK’s arms ban: pure hypocrisy

Israeli arms exports to Britain are much greater than those from Britain to Israel, and will continue

By Geoffrey Alderman, July 23, 2009

Earlier this month, the British government appeared to take the first step towards the imposition of an embargo on the export of United Kingdom-manufactured military equipment to Israel.
That is not how the news was meant to look. Indeed, it now seems that the decision was not meant to be in the public domain at all.

In April, in a written parliamentary statement (written, rather than orally delivered, so as to make sure that there could be no immediate debate) Foreign Secretary David Miliband announced a review of the 182 licences issued by the British government for the export of military goods to Israel.

Most of these “goods” are in fact components manufactured in the UK for export to the USA, whence the finished hardware is re-exported to Israel. But some of the licences relate to components made in Britain and then sold directly to the Jewish state.

Specifically, some 35 of these cover orders placed by the Israeli navy. Of these, Mr Miliband has now revoked five, all relating to the Sa’ar 4.5 missile-launching Corvettes, and, in particular, to the provision of spare parts for the guns mounted on these rather handsome-looking vessels.

Miliband’s sharp-eyed inspectors declared that these 76-millimetre guns had been fired in the course of Israel’s recent military operations in Gaza.

The Foreign Secretary then concluded that the firing of these guns constituted a serious breach of something called “The Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria”. That being the case, the licences for the spare parts for these guns would have to be quashed. And so they were.
But no public announcement was made to that effect. Quietly, letters were despatched from Whitehall to the manufacturers concerned.

The British Foreign Office did, however, as a matter of courtesy, inform the Israeli embassy in London. The embassy then sent what’s been described as a “classified telegram” to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, in Jerusalem, explaining that the decision to revoke the export licences was a response to pressure from British MPs and various so-called human-rights organisations. And there the matter might have rested had not the contents of this “classified telegram” fallen into the hands of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, which ran the story in its edition of July 13.

What are we to make of all this? The revocation of five export licences, for spare parts that — I am reliably informed — Israel can easily get through “the usual backdoor channels” is, of itself, piffling, a minor irritant.

There were far more important licences that Mr Miliband might have revoked, but didn’t, such as those permitting the export of engines for the Hermes unmanned drones that carry out with such finesse the assassination of terrorists in Gaza.

The value, to the UK, of orders placed with British companies by the IDF totals around £20 million — hardly a fortune, these days. What is of far greater value is the total of orders placed with Israeli companies by the British military — especially for high-tech components developed in Israel and manufactured under licence in the UK.

Exactly how much this trade is worth to Israel no one will tell me. But a representative of British manufacturers did venture to say that “no one [in the UK] will jeopardise this business”, much of which (he added) is conducted “under the radar”. Nor must we forget the clandestine military training given by the IDF to the British Army (as reported in last week’s JC).

So we need evince no surprise that the Foreign Secretary wanted to revoke the five UK licences without any public fanfare. As it is, he can now tell the MPs and human-rights organisations that lobbied him that he has listened and taken action. But not — he can tell Zionist audiences — action that will impinge on Israel’s ability to defend itself. As Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has stressed, this is not something “to get excited about”.

All the same, Miliband’s action has undeniable symbolic significance. The revocation of these licences must surely embolden Israel’s enemies to push for a more meaningful embargo. It could also suggest a distressing preoccupation by Labour with the Muslim vote in the run-up to the next general election.

Last updated: 4:27pm, July 23 2009