When I told people that I was writing my dissertation on Israeli arms sales to Asia, people always told me, “We all know it’s because of money.” The more complex answer is that while money is a part, there are other important reasons that Israel sells arms to pretty much any country the U.S. (or the UN) doesn’t say we can’t sell weapons. One of these reasons is that Israel has a small defense industrial base, and our history has taught us the importance of having a defense industry. Another reason is that plenty of friendships have formed from our arms sales. The last reason I will discuss is that our arms sales help our allies.
Israeli arms sales’ main goal indeed is to make money. But one might ask, what doe that money do? Well, it goes to ensure our survival. The Israeli defense budget is around 20 billion dollars. That is by no means enough to support a defense industrial base without vast amounts of arms exports. And given our history with France, which cut off our arms supply and almost killed us in the process because we didn’t do what DeGaul wanted us to do, we need a defense industrial base to make sure that if something goes wrong and the USA won’t give us weapons anymore, we’ll be fine. Thus, the only way to keep an arms industry alive if one does not have a significant domestic industrial base is to sell early and often.
Now, one might ask why Israel has to sell to almost any taker? They could go without selling things to Burma and South Sudan, right? The answer to that is yes and no. While many smaller defense firms are often one missed contract bid away from closing up shop and finding something else to do, weapons are not cheap to design, no matter how big the defense company is. While Israel has experience designing and testing weapons, Israel still needs money to design and build the arms.
Advanced weapons are even more expensive, and Israel is now heavily into the advanced weapons market. Since America’s footing of our defense bill often comes with the proviso that the money from Uncle Sam to buy weapons can only go to buy weapons made by Uncle Sam (some projects are jointly developed and funded by America and Israel, but the funding scheme is complex and outside the scope of this post), Israel needs to get as much money from its exports as possible to build its advanced weapons. As a result, while the few million dollars spent by Burma or South Sudan on simple rifles and bullets at Israeli firms aren’t vital to keeping the lights on at those firms, it could be the difference between life and death for a super-advanced weapons system that could defend the lives of millions of Israelis.
Additionally, Israeli arms sales also keep the lights on in factories and keep them running not staying idle. As a result, while those arms sales to Burma and South Sudan do rightfully raise eyebrows, the fact is, like it or not, those sales to countries with horrible human rights records save Israeli lives. Whether or not one says an Israeli life is more important than a Nuer or Rohingya life (I don’t think an Israeli life is more important than a Nuer or Rohingya life and if I was advising the prime minister on this issue, I might advise doing some things differently) is something that should concern the rabbis, ethicists, voters, and policymakers, but, as far as the weapons companies see it, such philosophical questions aren’t their problem,
The second reason why Israel sells arms to countries with horrible human rights records is that Israel makes quite a few friends through its arms sales. For example, take China. China was a country that was incredibly anti-Israel before the 80s, and it still is in many ways, but there has been a vast improvement in its behavior towards Israel. For example, China was funding and arming the Palestinian Liberation Organization of Yassir Arafat before Israel knew who that engineering student and his terrorist group were. Then, at the beginning of the 1980s, Israel started selling arms to China clandestinely. During China’s pre-1989 National Days, Chinese tanks started parading with Israeli gun sights (which could mean that the tank in the Tank Man photo could have had Israeli gun sights inside of it). These arms sales laid the groundwork for the 1992 announcement of relations between Israel and China and the budding trade relationship between Israel and China. Additionally, China is not the only country with a horrible human rights record Israeli arms sales were the first steps for forming a relationship with Israel (India, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE come to mind).
The third reason why Israel sells arms is that it helps our allies. Now, because most countries that we are proud to have as our friends have no fear of being pushed into oblivion by their region (and have much larger defense industrial bases), they tend not to have such a need to export arms to stay alive. As a result, they tend to be more selective regarding arms sales. This sometimes manifests in laws against selling weapons to a regime with an odious human rights record. This means that sometimes, there are weapons that a country we are proud to have as our friend wants to, but can’t, sell to a country with a horrible human rights record. As a result, to arm the countries that can’t buy our friends’ arms, we sell them weapons instead of our friends selling those countries arms. The primary examples of this would be China, numerous Latin American dictatorships, and Apartheid South Africa during the Cold War, all of whom were radioactive in the American foreign policy circle but served American interests very well and needed arms.
As a result, I hope I have demonstrated why Israel sells arms to countries with horrible human rights records. I know that it makes the Holocaust survivor bubbes shiver when we try to sell phone hacking tools to Hong Kong and Belarus, which have resulted in the arrests of activists, spy tools to Mohammed Bone Saw (MBS) that he put on Jamal Khashoggi wife’s phone, which gave the Saudis the intel needed to get the doomed journalist into the Saudi consulate where he was dismembered. However, the fact is that Israel has legitimate security interests that sometimes require us to sell weapons to horrible countries.
Ryan O’Connor contributed to the editing of this post. Significant portions of research for this post came from the dissertation research notes that are paywalled or from books and therefore cannot be included as hyperlinked sources.