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Stung by Criticism, Israel Reviews Its Arms Industry

September 18, 1986|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

TEL AVIV — The following article was submitted to the Israeli censor, who ordered significant deletions.

Jarred by a series of embarrassing scandals abroad and mounting criticism at home, Israel is reviewing procedures within its controversial armaments industry but not its fundamental commitment to the business.

The review involves both Israel's international arms sales and its acquisition of technology and equipment to support its own weapons production.

In an interview here, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said that specific steps include:

--Changes in a system under which certain former Israeli military officers are authorized to seek out and negotiate foreign arms deals.

--Exercise of greater care in filing applications for defense-related U.S. products and know-how.

--A shift, wherever possible, to non-American suppliers of military equipment and technology in order to avoid the restrictions of doing business with the United States.

While acknowledging that the changes result in part from a recent series of scandals and accusations in the United States related to the Israeli arms industry, Rabin dismissed charges of Israeli wrongdoing.

The defense minister also said Israel's main motive for making arms is not to sell them abroad but to defend itself. However, he acknowledged that, because of the restrictions the ailing domestic economy has placed on Israel's defense budget, he has urged the country's arms manufacturers to make up for the drop in government sales by stepping up their export efforts.

" . . . We cut our orders in our military industries . . . and I told them quite frankly: 'Either you'll fire people or find export markets,' " Rabin said.

Rarely since its inception in the pre-independence Jewish underground has Israel's armaments industry fallen under such intensive public scrutiny, here and abroad, as it has in the last year or two.

A special Israeli television report titled "Merchants of Death" recently examined the underside of this country's efforts to sell both arms and anti-terrorist know-how.

In the report, the owner of one private Israeli arms company, interviewed in deep shadow to conceal his identity, described the climate in which weapons sales are negotiated.

"The decision-makers in various countries meet arms dealers outside their country. And it is a matter of caring for various things they need--good hotels, good restaurants and whatever your imagination can conjure in this field."

For their efforts, the arms merchant said, he and his peers take a 10% to 15% agent's fee, known in the trade as schmear .

Israel's latest military export, according to the television report, is anti-terrorist expertise. Twenty companies, usually headed by former senior officers from elite Israeli army and secret police units, offer such services.

As a promotional film for one of them revealed, their sales approach is direct: "Organized. Ruthless. Terror is an untamed menace threatening to disrupt the order of society--unless society decides to meet the threat with order and method; with intelligent analysis and diligent preparation; with the Israeli fighters who have been battling terror for two decades, who have studied it, learned its weaknesses and participated in a triumphant campaign against it.

"These are the men of Atlas--the professionals," intones the promotional film's narrator against the backdrop of men firing at human-shaped targets on a practice range. "They know the tricks of the trade.

"They know the training, down to the little details," the narrator adds as one "professional" runs up and shoots a mannequin in the head from point-blank range.

Noting that Israel's arms trade has seen itself linked with assorted military and anti-democratic regimes, from the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Iran to the notorious deposed Emperor Bokassa I of the Central African Republic, the respected military affairs analyst for the newspaper Haaretz, Zev Schiff, recalled an old Russian proverb: "A person who sleeps with dogs shouldn't be surprised to find himself covered with fleas."

While the Israeli media are in the forefront, they are not alone in questioning various aspects of the arms business.

Exposed Economically

There are now so many Israeli weapons salesmen in the field and such large quantities of Israeli weaponry in circulation around the world that what should be an important tool of the country's foreign policy "threatens to get out of control," according to Aaron Klieman, Tel Aviv University arms sales expert and author of "Israel's Global Reach: Arms Sales as Diplomacy."

Some economists say that with more than $1.25 billion in annual arms sales abroad, constituting about 25% of total Israeli industrial exports, the country is dangerously exposed economically.

And still others, such as former Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Tsipori, question the morality of having reserve Israeli army officers involved in the shadowy world of international weapons transactions.

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