An arms role to be ashamed of
Once upon a time, at least in the popular imagination, Israel's biggest export was oranges. Could it now be mercenaries?
Conspiracist websites abound with claims that Israelis are behind every junta, coup or military regime in the world. All this would be easy to dismiss as antisemitic delusions... if it wasn't so close to being true.
Take the recent conflict between Georgia and Russia. It quickly became common knowledge that, quite apart from extensive arms sales, private Israeli security companies had been responsible for training Georgian forces, including its elite commando units.
The main players were Global CST, owned by Major General Israel Ziv (res), and former Brigadier General Gal Hirsch's Defensive Shield. The latter is the disgraced former commander of the IDF's Galilee Division who was forced to resign after Israel's 2006 war with Lebanon. This delighted Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. "Gal Hirsch, who was defeated in Lebanon, went to Georgia and they too lost because of him," he boasted. "Relying on Israeli experts and weapons, Georgia learned why the Israeli generals failed."
But Georgia is far from the only recipient of Israeli expertise. Israel has a long and often inglorious history of exporting its combat, intelligence and urban-warfare skills, mainly through private and independent companies authorised by a special defence-ministry department.
One reason is the structure of the IDF, from which combat officers can retire with full pensions at the age of 42. This means the army is free from doddery old codgers, but also that it produces a stream of highly trained individuals, free to sell their knowledge at a much higher rate than they ever got in the army.
Last year, Israel sold arms and military training to the tune of $5.3 billion. Of course, it is entirely logical that Israel would utilise its extraordinary experience and knowledge of counter-terrorism and intelligence-gathering. Much of this is entirely legitimate. But there are some very shadowy areas.
The crucial point is that this is not just about arms sales, which are a regrettable part of many economies. Weapons, after all, can be used with a minimum of basic instruction. Where Israelis excel is in their combat doctrine and experience of establishing security apparatus, systems of intelligence-gathering and surveillance. All very useful skills, particularly to the kind of regimes who like to use them on their own civilians or political opponents.
Probably the best known Israeli mercenary is Yair Klein, a former commando whose company, Spearhead Ltd, has been involved in some particularly gruesome conflicts. He is currently in Moscow fighting extradition to Colombia where, having been convicted in absentia of training paramilitary groups and drug-lord militias, he faces more than a decade in jail. He has already spent 16 months in a Sierra Leone jail accused of trading diamonds to supply arms to the Revolutionary United Front, although no charges were ever brought. He also reportedly spent the 1990s training Liberian counter-terrorist units.
Israeli expertise helped prop up many of the most unpleasant regimes in Central and South America, from Nicaraguan dictators to Guatemalan police units. Over the years, this has been extended to African regimes such as those in Cameroon, Liberia, Angola and Zaire. According to some reports, Israeli companies even supplied both sides in the Sierra Leone civil war. Often, where America was too queasy to supply the goods to particularly noisome dictatorships, Israel was asked to step into the breach.
Israel could argue that it needs to export its expertise to be able to fund its own research and development. But even its own foreign ministry complains of a lack of judgment when deciding to whom to sell arms and training. The way Israeli aid to Georgia was stopped, under intense Russian pressure just days before war broke out, shows that Israel still has not found the right balance between its financial and diplomatic interests.
This is all cold, hard realpolitik, of course. But it is not something that any country - certainly not Israel, with its doctrine of "purity of arms" - should be proud of.
Daniella Peled is foreign editor. This page appears fortnightly