Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Israel's Defense Partners

Last year Sasha Polakow-Suransky, an American Jew whose parents were from South Africa, published a book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, based on extensive interviews with Israeli and South African officials, generals and anti-apartheid activists. According to Polakow-Suransky the relationship, which began in 1974 and lasted until the early 1990s, was based largely on commercial considerations on Israel's part. In the early 1970s Israel had developed a major domestic arms industry as a result of France having suddenly cut its arms sales to Israel. Because of economies of scale it made more sense for Jerusalem to manufacture more than it needed for the IDF and sell the surplus abroad on the open arms market or through country-to-country arrangements. Jerusalem was also looking for a rich uncle that could subsidize its research and development efforts in certain key areas such as missile development. Israel had a deal with the Shah's Iran to co-develop a missile that abruptly ended in 1979 with the Iranian revolution. Pretoria was able to take up the slack.

Jerusalem has obviously needed to find new partners since the end of apartheid and white minority rule in 1994. Ideal partners would be either pariah states with healthy economies that are not naturally hostile to the Jewish State and would be unlikely to turn around and pass on the technology to its enemies. One obvious candidate is Taiwan. Taiwan because of its developed electronics industry is one of the East Asian Tiger economies. It has a major potential threat from the Chinese mainland. This threat, however, unlike that faced by Israel or apartheid South Africa is not primarily in terms of conventional land armies and guerrilla/terrorist low-intensity conflict but is mostly a threat of seaborne invasion. Israel Defense Industries manufactures everything from small arms (Uzi submachine guns, Galil assault rifles) to armored vehicles (Merkava tanks) to aircraft (Kfir jet fighters), medium-range missiles (Jericho II) and missile boats (Reshef). No doubt Israel  could equip the Taiwanese armed forces with small arms and armored vehicles. And maybe Taiwan would be interested in buying Israeli corvette missile ships to augment its American frigates. But it is doubtful that Taiwan would want the 35-year old technology in the Kfir fighter or Israel's Merkava tanks in large quantity. 

So Israel would need another defense partner. Israel mainly competes in the market for Third World sales against other Third World countries like Brazil and minor European manufacturers like Swedish and Austrian firms. It cannot compete against the major European manufacturers who individually or in consortium fill the orders of European countries for tanks, planes, missiles, and ships. Part of the glue that held together the Israeli-South African defense alliance was an ideological affinity between the Likud and the ruling National Party in South Africa. Both countries saw themselves in a similar situation as outsiders in regions that rejected them. The South African ANC and the Palestinian PLO were ideological allies and had common Soviet and Third World backers. Does Israel have a potential ally in the Third World with common enemies?

Israel should look for countries that are targeted by Islam. India has faced a conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir since 1947. In the past it was a Soviet ally with extensive defense ties to Moscow. But when the Cold War ended these ties largely ended. Israel has specialized in revamping outdated Soviet technology with new Western technology in upgrades by aiding new avionics, ranging and aiming systems, etc. In the past Israel has exported such technology to China. Israel would be a natural partner to upgrade aged Soviet tanks in the Indian inventory along with the avionics of its obsolescent Soviet and British fighters. India has a quite large domestic arms industry, but it could no doubt use Israeli technologies in some areas.

There was always speculation that the Israeli-South African alliance involved cooperation in nuclear technology. Actually Pretoria had enough domestic scientific talent to produce crude nuclear devices. If Israel assisted it was probably to make them more deliverable by helping to shrink down the warheads.  In the 1970s Taiwan had a nuclear weapons research program that it eventually ended due to pressure from Washington. If Taipei should eventually decide that it needs the ultimate deterrent to dissuade Beijing from invading, look to it to turn to Jerusalem for assistance. Whether Israel would respond positively and risk the wrath of both Washington and Beijing is another matter. But Likud governments were willing to defy Washington over cooperation with Pretoria and over settlements.

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