The rise of the PMC & Israel’s checkered economic history

“He hired also a hundred thousand fighting men out of Israel for an hundred talents of silver.” (2 Chronicles 25:6).

Although much has been made of the ‘corporate evolution’ of military contracting in recent years, most are quick to temper these views against the historical reality: that “mercenaries”, or professional soldiers fighting under a foreign flag, have been around since Biblical times. While it is true that Hannibal’s elephants crossed the Alps on a Carthaginian payroll, and that Greek mercenaries helped paved the way for the Persian offensive on Europe in 490 BC, it is important to note that the system of international humanitarian laws that now guides sovereignty disputes — as well as the radically different system of contemporary corporate structure and governance — should render our understanding of the supposed ‘ethical debate’ over the idea completely different in the modern era.

Do we really want to live in a world where corporations fight wars, rather than ‘nation-states’ as we’ve come to understand them? The American addiction to contracted personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan might cut political (and in some cases, financial) costs significantly for Washington-based warlords; but these contractors also operate in a shadowy area where robust coalition accountability systems do not apply to them – or, curiously enough, any sort of Western, domestic or international law (at least in practice). After Blackwater employees fired indiscriminately on Iraqi civilians and policemen in Nisour square in 2007 (killing 17, and injuring 20), tensions flared between the Bush administration and then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Although this incident brought America’s dependency on mercenaries into the limelight and triggered half-hearted legislative action on Capitol Hill, four years later a US congressional research paper (co-authored by Israeli Moshe Schwartz) would assess the number of contractors operating in Iraq and Afghanistan as greater than the total number of flagged coalition forces.

In a proxy war, the incentives for a government to act through a company such as AEGIS, Blackwater or G4S are multiplied tenfold. Though Nepalese and Colombian combattants fighting in Yemen might raise some eyebrows at first instance (and might not constitute plausible deniability for the Saudi-led bloc per se), they are politically expedient in that they allow regional titans to look the other way when otherwise direct clashes do occur. Unfortunately for Israeli strategists, such wars rage across the Levant and the Gulf; a realization all too profitable for opportunistic companies headquartered in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

Suggestions by London-based Al Khaleej, a UAE-focused media outlet, that such foreign combattants in Yemen are being trained in the Negev are so far unsubstantiated by concrete evidence; what they do point to, however, is an identifiable trend of Israeli companies providing what I might term “indirect assistance” (cyber support, sale of combat and missile drone technology etc) to Syria and/or Yemen. Of course, this poses an entirely different question unique to Israel and the technological advancement that has made a Zionist nation of only 8 million people a military viability in an inhospitable Middle East. Does “indirect assistance” betray a strategic advantage? And if so, what price should be put on it?

I, like many others, would argue none. Unlike the US, Israel does not have the luxury of withdrawing across the Atlantic when she decides that it’s time to go home. In international relations, there is often much talk of ‘American supremacy’ – what I would like to put to the reader, particularly in view of historical success in the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars – is a sort of ‘Israeli primacy’; grounded in technological superiority to the states that purport to oppose it (and yet gladly buy her secrets to fight sectarian wars). Israel’s staggering R&D expenditure – amounting to 4.5% of national GDP – coupled with her underdog culture and commitment to innovation have seen the country grow into fertile soil for high-tech innovation, while her Levantine neighbors have floundered. Examples of the success of this policy are countless: unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), the Iron Dome anti-ballistic shield, Heron TP drones – what’s more, in the current regulatory vacuum there is almost nothing stopping mercenary companies from sharing these valuable assets with any of the countries that would love nothing more than to “wipe Israel off the map.”

This seems to be the pattern. Though this author would not profess himself as a final authority on the legitimacy of any of these claims, reports centered on Israeli mercenary involvement in regional conflicts are almost inevitably linked to the sales of what should be confidential technology, and the number of such allegations belies a disturbing trend. Notable examples from recent months include Israeli company NSO Group Technologies, which was implicated in selling Saudi Arabia the Pegasus tracking technology used to tail Jamal Khashoggi; or Spearhead Operations Group, which has been accused of providing drone support to Arab-coalition assassinations in Yemen. For a country steeped in a proud socialist history – where kibbutzim formed the backbone of the agricultural sector, and government intervention pervaded most aspects of everyday life – it could be tempting to look at the broader debate on the roles of PMCs in Iraq and Afghanistan as a necessary evolution of the nation’s shift into an aggressively capitalist model post-1985. But this would be ignorant of the particular flavor of mercenary ventures in Israel, the geopolitical context Israel operates in, as well as the existential value of the assets these companies would seem to be selling in that environment. It’s time for the Knesset to acknowledge the threat this problem poses to the State of Israel, and to properly address this problem on the national stage.

About the Author
The author is an Australian law graduate and international relations researcher currently teaching in Tokyo, Japan. He has published a number of notable papers on international law and has considerable experience in Middle Eastern geopolitics (consolidated by work in the local consulate to Afghanistan).