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Wrist-slapping unlikely to halt Israeli military sales to Australia

By Henry Lebovic - posted Wednesday, 19 December 2012


In response to the announcement by the Israeli government of 3,000 new settler homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Bob Carr expressed "grave concern" on behalf of the Australian government. For the sake of a durable peace for both Israel and Palestine, we should hope that this expression is sincere. But what hope is there that a sustained and consistent expression of diplomatic displeasure, let alone any real action, can be expected? If our recent form is any guide, then very little at all.

Those with a memory longer than the last commercial break will recall how, in May 2010 the then PM, Kevin Rudd, expelled an Israeli diplomat from Canberra in response to the use of forged Australian passports by Mossad agents in order to conduct an assassination on an alleged terrorist in Dubai some months earlier. At about the same time, the killing of Turkish peace activists on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla raid took place on 31 May 2010, but that tragedy prompted no condemnation from the Australian government.

Following a change of prime minister, and the commencement of a federal election campaign, the new foreign minister, Steven Smith, spoke to the Australian Jewish News on 12 August of that year. In that interview, he said that he was "very confident now that in terms of agency-to-agency relationship, government-to-government, nation-to-nation, it is business as usual." This decision was confirmed by an article in The Age in December 2011 which claimed that the intelligence sharing links between Australia and Israel had been recently restored, with the passport incident now a distant memory.

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In other words, consider your wrist firmly slapped. Now back to business.

Which might give one pause to wonder about the nature and extent of the business relationship between Israel and Australia. Such curiosity would not be satisfied by relying on the mainstream media, but rest assured that business between the two nations is alive and well. And one of its most active areas is in military and defence trade.

While Australia's military and defence sales to Israel rarely exceed $30 million per year, the trade the other way is impressive. Israel is an advanced designer and manufacturer of high-tech hardware and software, much of which it uses to maintain its own defence. Which of course includes operations in Gaza which ensure the technology is regularly used. I imagine a government official from Tel Aviv saying, "look, if I didn't think this stuff was excellent, I wouldn't be buying it myself".

So what sort of gear are we talking about? When did it start?

In the late 1990s, the RAAF purchased the AGM-142 Popeye missiles from Rafael Advanced Defense Systems for use on the F-111 bombers. Due to integration problems, their use was delayed until 2006, just four years prior to the bombers end of service. In that same year, the ADF purchased the JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System) from a joint venture company, part owned by Elbit Systems of Haifa, Israel. However, these contracts continued, and new ones were awarded, even after the outrage over Operation Cast Lead in late 2008 and the illegal construction of the fence in the West Bank.

On 15 March 2010, Greg Combet, the Minister for Defence Personnel, Material and Science, announced that Elbit Systems had been awarded a major contract for the supply of command, control and communications systems for the Australian Defence Forces over a period of three years. The value of the contract was $AUD 349 million. The company's President and CEO, Joseph Ackerman, commented at the time that "Australia is a very important market for Elbit Systems". Being a major defence systems supplier, their significant involvement in the activities of the Israeli Defence Force comes as no surprise. The company is involved in the construction of the wall in the occupied West Bank, and one of its subsidiaries supplies aerial drones to the Israeli Army, which are used in attacks on both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. For this reason, Elbit Systems have been the target of divestment by major Scandinavian pension funds that have been progressively joining the BDS movement to protest over the actions of the Israeli government and defence forces.

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In July 2010, it was announced that a contract between the RAAF and Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) to use their Heron unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) would be extended for another year starting in January 2011. Their use in Afghanistan by both Australian and Canadian forces had begun in 2008 and 2009. In July 2011, the contract was again extended for another year from January to December 2012. IAI is the main competitor to Elbit Systems in Israel. Several years earlier, the ADF purchased the Skylark from Elbit Systems, a small UAV ideal for use in surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Additionally, back in 2005 another IAI aerial vehicle – the I-View – was the selected product for use by the Army.

Meanwhile, Rafael Advanced Systems continue to heavily promote their products in Australia. Leveraging off their success in winning several defence contracts with the RAN in the early 2000's, they were one of the major attractions at the AVALON Air Show, held 1-6 March 2011 in Geelong, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Of particular significance to Australia is the push by the Israeli Trade Commission here to identify and facilitate the use of Israeli technology, including military technology, for use in the Australian mining industry. The commission recently identified that much of the technology offered for sale by Israeli companies was designed for remote use in harsh climates, and was therefore ideal for use in Australia. In a catalogue produced by the commission in 2011, they explained how suitable the technologies would be to Australian mining companies, and documented a number of Israeli companies which are currently able to provide products and services. While some of these offerings are from companies engaged in non-military activities, the set did include IMCO Industries and SimiGon, both heavily involved in supplying the IDF, and the above-mentioned Elbit Systems and IAI.

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About the Author

Henry Lebovic recently completed a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, where he won the Gordon Rodley prize for 2011 for the greatest proficiency amongst Masters students in that year. He is a freelance writer on social issues.

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