Israel is profiting from Ukraine’s crisis

Elbit Systems Hermes (Mathieu Sontag - WikiMedia)

Jonathan Ofir

Mondoweiss /  March 30, 2022

There is one angle of the Ukrainian crisis that may turn out to boost Israel’s legitimacy and bolster its international impunity – weapons.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has met a wave of boycotts, divestment and sanctions in the ‘west’, even unto the level of cancellation of Russian artists. The distance between the legitimization of such protest measures when they oppose Russia, and the outright outlawing of them when it comes to Israel, has been an obvious point cause of bitterness among Palestinians who could not but see hypocrisy, even when they sympathized with the Ukrainian suffering.

One could, and I believe should, argue that this status quo of exceptionalism where Israel is concerned, is only strengthening Israel’s impunity the longer it extends – it is simply normalizing Israel’s impunity. This has been going on for decades, but it becomes ever more stark in light of the far more unrestrained response to Russia.

Israel has sought to play mediator in the crisis – but that appears to mostly be a game strengthening Russian legitimacy, and may prove to be too high of a price for Israel to pay.  

Nonetheless there is one angle of the Ukrainian crisis that may turn out to be a direct win for Israel’s legitimacy and bolster its international impunity – weapons.

Times of Israel reported yesterday, that the Israeli weapons giant Elbit’s stocks have risen by 40 percent since mid-February. “Countries in Europe, including economic powerhouse Germany, have decided to update their armed forces and increase military spending since Russia’s invasion”, they note. Last week, Elbit said it secured a $27 million contract with Sweden for tank ammunition.

Elbit is a major enabler of oppression against Palestinians, which is also why it has been targeted for years by activist campaigns to shut down – with some remarkable recent activist success in UK applying direct action (repeatedly occupying the Elbit subsidiaries).

Elbit, with its drones, shells and sophisticated surveillance systems has for many become the symbol of the draconian military oppression of Palestinians, which a host of Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights groups and experts confirm to be Apartheid, most recently UN Special Rapporteur Michael Lynk, who calls it “pitiless Apartheid”. Lynk notes that there are various aspects in this pitiless Apartheid that are even worse than in the South African version:

There are pitiless features of Israel’s ‘apartness’ rule in the occupied Palestinian territory that were not practiced in southern Africa, such as segregated highways, high walls and extensive checkpoints, a barricaded population, missile strikes and tank shelling of a civilian population, and the abandonment of the Palestinians’ social welfare to the international community.

But now Elbit may be able to improve its image, because now, if the ‘west’ arms itself with Elbit’s weapons in order to oppose Russia, Elbit, and with it Israel, may be seen as purveyors of peace and security.

The more countries are invested in such deals with Elbit and other Israeli weapon companies, the less they are likely to oppose Israel diplomatically, because the big deals go through an Israeli state approval organ, and it is mostly states which buy the weapons.

Weapons and energy

Countries in Europe are realizing that their hands are being tied when it comes to Russia, since there is a huge dependence upon Russian resources. Here in Denmark, most of the natural gas import is from Gazprom. In Europe in general it’s about 40 percent. Twenty five percent of the fuel we fill cars with here in Denmark is Russian. Here they are talking about becoming free of this connection within the year, but it is a very complicated matter when energy giants like Orsted have contracts with Russia reaching to 2030 that they are wary of violating.

There is a huge push in this direction. It is commonly being understood that money is power, and if you rely on goods from someone you should be sanctioning, well, then you have a problem.

Returning to Israel and weapons, the weapons industry has been greatly legitimized in direct response to Russian aggression. There has been mainstream ‘western’ acceptance even of the idea of Molotov cocktails applied by civilians against Russian invaders. This is another one of those amazing examples which show how different it is to be Palestinian (they would generally be called terrorists and shot dead without question by Israeli soldiers, which few if any ‘western’ journalists would even dare to question). And when that is the mood, there is also a huge understanding for arming in general as well as increasing military budgets.

The two aspects – reduction of dependency on Russian resources, as well as increase in military spending, are seen as two sides of the same coin here. Reuters reports earlier this month:

Denmark will significantly increase its defence budget and aim to become independent of Russian natural gas in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said on Sunday. The Nordic country will increase its defence spending gradually to reach 2% of GDP by 2033, equivalent to an increase in annual defence spending of around 18 billion Danish crowns ($2.65 billion) under an agreement between the main parliamentary parties.

These are considered historic times:

“Historic times call for historic decisions,” Frederiksen said at a press briefing in Copenhagen, adding that this was “the largest investment in Danish defence in recent times”… “Putin’s pointless and brutal attack on Ukraine has heralded a new era in Europe, a new reality,” Frederiksen said… “Ukraine’s struggle is not just Ukraine’s, it’s a test of strength for everything we believe in, our values, democracy, human rights, peace and freedom.”

Now this kind of talk could become a problem for Israel – if the parallels were drawn between its Apartheid oppression and Russia. But if it were to contribute to the ‘western’ arming effort against Russia, then it could actually win points of legitimacy on this one.

Israel is eager to sell war as peace, and it is Orwellian.

War is Peace

In Israel, it is apparently natural for a founder of Peace Now, to be a top executive at Elbit.

A week ago, Nir Gontarz of Haaretz called up Elbit (Hebrew). His piece is called “How much does one of the founders of Peace Now earn as a director in a weapons company? Check it out”. He starts out by trying to catch Elbit executives on the phone in order to find out why Elbit has sponsored a book that whitewashes the Bulgarian military, which hunted down and expelled Jews in World War II. Gontarz wants to know why they have done that, “beyond the obvious, that you are selling weapons to the Bulgarian army”.

After he is being made to run around the bush several times, Gontarz eventually reaches Yuli Tamir. Tamir is a former Labor politician, she served in various ministerial positions between 1999 and 2007. She was a co-founder of Peace Now in 1978, she was an activist for Ratz (the forerunner of the left-Zionist Meretz) in 1980-85. She was chairwoman of the Israeli Association for Civil Rights 1998-9. A leftist, one could say, at least in the Israeli relativity.

Tamir is far more open to discussion than the others who hung up, so Gontarz eventually gets to asking the following:

“Tell me by the way, how does one of the founders of Peace Now at all come to serve as a director in a company that produces and exports weapons?”

Tamir: Elbit does a lot for the defense of Israel

Gontarz: It also sells attack weapons.

Tamir: Alright, it does various things. I am one of the people who believe that the state of Israel needs to defend itself, and precisely these days when everyone sees what is happening in Ukraine, it’s clear that a state needs to defend itself, precisely if it wants to stand its ground and not become extinct. On the one side one needs to arm and be advanced, on the other to extend a hand for peace.

Gontarz tries to get an answer from Tamir on how much she earns from Elbit. It’s more rhetorical, because the amount is public, but he’s making Tamir uncomfortable, she doesn’t want to go there. She answers at a point that “then countries like Ukraine become extinct”.

This exchange is a microcosm of the liberal PR that Elbit and Israel would like to disseminate, when they finally talk about it. Now it’s really “let’s talk about Ukraine”, as a means of avoiding Israel. Because Ukraine is a cause that is garnering extreme and widespread sympathy and understanding in the ‘west’, and many people are now dropping their pacifist convictions in favor of armed resistance. Israel wants to be in on the profit from all that militarization. When there’s so much noise about Ukraine, Israel could spin it so as to serve as a silencing of critique and condemnation against Israel, and as a weakening of boycotts, divestments and sanctions to take Israel to task for its systemic violations. Israel needs to sever the parallels between it and Russia, so that world opinion doesn’t get too many good ideas about how to apply similar means to Israel, for doing so many things that are similar to Russia.

But the hypocrisy is huge, and Israel can unfortunately secure itself a safe place in the ‘west’. Mouin Rabbani writes about the hypocrisy in Al-Jadaliyya:

Virtually every aspect of this crisis – correction: every aspect of it without exception – is a case study in Western hypocrisy and double standards, and more often than not of racism as well. For example, Russia is entirely correct to assert that Ukraine is germane to Russian history and the development of Russian culture and identity. Yet no one in their right mind believes that these indisputable realities endow Russia with political rights in Ukraine, give Russia the right to invade and occupy even a square inch of Ukrainian territory, let alone seize the entire country and claim it as its own. Yet in the case of Palestine, it is in the West considered self-evident common sense that the presence of Israelites in that territory several thousand years ago, and the abiding Jewish religious attachment to Palestine should translate into exclusive territorial rights and even statehood.

And the U.S. is instrumental in this selective shielding of Israel. Rabbani:

Until 24 February the United Nations Human Rights Council was routinely denounced for having the temerity to inquire about the human rights of the Palestinian people. Suddenly, it has become a valued institution precisely because it condemns foreign occupation and the violations inherent in this state of affairs. In his 1 March address to the Council, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken managed to denounce Russia, affirm that no state is beyond accountability, and demand the Council stop investigating Israel within the space of two minutes, and did so without blushing or batting an eyelid. Those who believe the international response to Ukraine will make the West more sensitive to Palestinian rights, international law in the Middle East, or the region’s refugees need only read his words to understand that this is an illusion. It did not happen after the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, and it will not happen in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But if these indeed are historic times, then I think we should also use them to strengthen the case for BDS where Israel is concerned. States may be big and powerful, but simple activists can also affect change – it’s called grassroots pressure. We cannot merely call it a “Ukraine moment” and ignore the actors that seek to profit from these developments. Here in the ‘west’, governments are working out very quickly how to become independent of Russian resources. These resources exist elsewhere, and there are also other ways to apply natural resources in a less damaging way – hence the green energy development. It is widely understood that reliance upon Russian resources weakens one’s ability to act against it. The logic should apply concerning Israel and its weapons as well. It really is blood money. Israel’s grand-scale assaults on Palestinians in recent decades have served as a boon for its weapon sales. Eitay Mack, an Israeli lawyer often involved in petitions to expose Israel’s dirty arms deals, notes:

If I’m asked how I have the gall to think that Israel is conducting weapons tests in the territories, I reply that the allegation is not that Israel initiates wars to test weapons, but that the industries ‘hitch a ride’ on them and profit – it’s the arms exporters who market the weapons as battle-proven. That’s what they tell people at the international fairs. I heard it with my own ears: “It’s Cast Lead [2008-9] battle-proven,” “It’s Defensive Shield [2002] battle-proven.” The leap in sales after Cast Lead was also due to the cynicism of the international community, which first condemned the operation and then came here to learn how Israel conducted it. [Maj. Gen. (res.)] Yoav Galant, who was then the head of Southern Command [and later housing minister] made an amazing remark in this connection: “They came to see how we turn blood into money.”

Jonathan Ofir – Israeli musician, conductor and blogger/writer based in Denmark