Commentary Magazine


The Patriot Smear & Its Progeny

Israel Watch, the department we introduce here, is meant to deal with a new situation: the escalation of the ideological and political war against Israel which has been going on since, roughly, the end of the Gulf War. Every day, it seems, brings another lie about Israel, or another slander, or another tendentious misrepresentation; and every day, it also seems, there are fewer and fewer voices raised to expose the lie, to refute the slander, to correct the misrepresentation. No wonder, then, that Israel is perhaps more isolated politically than ever before in its history.

Obviously, we cannot expect through this department alone to set the record straight in every detail. But we do hope to keep track of and to answer the main charges which enemies of Israel—and some of its self-proclaimed “friends”—have been hurling at it with relentless ferocity.

Israel Watch will be written by a rotating team, led off by David Bar-Illan, the editorial-page editor of the Jerusalem Post, and it will appear frequently in the months ahead.

Orchestrated smears are but one of many weapons commonly used by Israel’s enemies in Washington. Such enemies have been populating U.S. government offices since the establishment of the state, and it is safe to assume that they will be there for some time to come, leaking anti-Israel canards whenever it seems propitious. But what has transformed them from irksome nuisances to major menaces is the hostile atmosphere which has been created by the Bush White House. A mood of open season on Israel makes them bolder, and encourages the media to gobble up their stories indiscriminately, no matter how ludicrous and fantastic these stories may be. In the context of a villainous Israel, anything goes, and dirty tricks of the kind employed only in total war against an implacable enemy become legitimate weapons in a contest of wills with an ally.

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The smears can be divided into roughly three categories. One is the accusation by anachronism, in which Israel is charged with selling weapons to a currently unpopular or blacklisted government when the weapons were in fact only sold, and perfectly legitimately, in the past.

This is particularly true with regard to South Africa, to which Israel sold arms at a time when that country was deemed an essential pillar of the free world’s defense against the Soviet Union and was a favored customer of Western arms manufacturers. Most of the charges surfaced as South Africa’s apartheid policies were becoming increasingly odious, and especially after the imposition of world sanctions against Pretoria, to which Israel strictly adhered. The media, which anyway relished making comparisons between Israel and the apartheid regime, would repeatedly dredge up old news of Israeli arms transactions, most often from the early 1970′s, and present it as new. (That the Arab OPEC countries kept South Africa going in defiance of the sanctions, by providing it with 70 percent of its oil needs, was never mentioned.)

The second category—charges about specific weapons systems—is of a more recent vintage. Such charges, which usually include intimidating technological details, radiate accuracy and authenticity; but they are also more easily refutable. Thus, in one of the more egregious examples of this kind of fabrication, a syndicated column by Evans and Novak accused Israel of selling Patriot missile technology to China. To give their story greater credibility, the columnists actually named the missile, the “Have Nap,” whose technology the Israelis were supposed to have betrayed.

As Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon official, charitably put it:

Someone exploited Evans and Novak’s total ignorance about missiles to sell them this nonsense. That “Have Nap” is the American name for the Popeye, a missile developed and built by the Israeli military industry in Israel, is known to all casual readers of official American publications.

Israel, of course, needs no permission to sell an Israeli product like the Popeye. But as it happens, no such sale has ever even been discussed with China.

In his column in the New York Times, A.M. Rosenthal had no trouble pulverizing the Evans and Novak accusation. Under his salvos they squirmed, twisted, and then compounded the original blunder with science-fiction double-talk about Stealth technology which a secret American operation had allegedly introduced into the missile. When, finally, an editorial in the Washington Times denounced “whoever is doing the leaking of spurious accusations,” Evans and Novak in effect retreated from all their charges. In a disingenuous letter to the editor of the Washington Times, they were reduced to seeking refuge in the third type of smear, the most common and least refutable—the nonspecific charge of betrayal and malfeasance:

Israel, the state so often proclaimed as our Mideast ally, is playing fast and loose with high-tech secrets given by us to them. No one disputes that this tragic misuse of American friendship has been going on for years between Israel and South Africa. But China? That is different by a formidable measure.

By accusing Israel of “tragic misuse of American friendship,” Evans and Novak deliberately cater to the perception of Israel, now carefully nurtured by some elements in the administration, as an ungrateful, cunning, and deceitful country which bites the hand that feeds it.

Nor can they be unaware of the advantage in making accusations too general to be answered, or in which innocent fact is given sinister connotation. That Israel has weapons deals with the Chinese is, after all, no secret. And there are many in Israel, and also among its friends abroad, who oppose selling any arms to totalitarian regimes. But accommodating the needs of Israel’s vital arms industry is one thing, and committing national suicide is quite another. To suggest that Israel would sell China—one of the Arab regimes’ main arms suppliers—American technology which might promptly be sold to the Arabs, and that it would risk its strategic relationship with the U.S. in the bargain, is to credit Israel with a galloping death wish.

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If there is one common denominator to all these charges, it is that they are false. Not that there is any way to guarantee the integrity and honesty of every person involved in the manufacture and sales of arms, or to determine the originality of every component in highly sophisticated weapons systems. But, if anything, Israel is the victim, not the perpetrator, of technology transfers. Thus, Israeli innovations have been incorporated in American fighter planes which have then been sold to Saudi Arabia. This is a transfer of Israeli technology not just to any third country, but to one which is in a state of war with Israel. It constitutes a direct threat to its security.

As the Israeli Defense Minister, Moshe Arens, has pointed out, Israel’s high-tech arms industries are among the most advanced in the world. Otherwise, the U.S. would not be farming out the development of the Arrow, an SDI project aimed at building an effective anti-missile system, to Israel’s defense industries. (Unlike the Patriot, originally designed as an anti-aircraft missile, the Arrow will defend not only limited areas against an incoming missile but will destroy launched enemy missiles before they approach their target.) And though the Israeli contribution to Desert Storm has been underplayed by the American military, the fact is that Israeli pilotless planes, weapons systems, and electronic devices proved invaluable in that war.

Moreover, many of the Israeli weapons supposedly based on American systems were developed well before Israel had any access to those systems. The Python 3 air-to-air missile, for example, allegedly “a knock-off of an American design, the heat-seeking AIM-9L Sidewinder,” as the New York Times put it, was deployed in combat in the Israeli air force before Israel ever received its first Sidewinder.

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Several motives have been suggested for this latest onslaught on Israel’s credibility, veracity, and integrity. Some Jewish leaders, who had criticized former New York Mayor Edward Koch for publicizing the obscene utterances against the Jews reportedly made by Secretary of State James A. Baker 3d, believed the administration was retaliating by besmirching Israel.

Other observers argued that the leaks were timed to deflect attention from the dismal failure of the U.S. navy to intercept the North Korean and Iranian ships carrying Scuds ultimately destined for Syria. These observers noted that the newest accusations were related to missile technology, whose proliferation in the Middle East the U.S. seems unable to stop. Accusing Israel of involvement in such proliferation would provide a convenient diversion.

Still others believed that since many of Israel’s friends in Congress oppose the administration’s closeness to China, charges of Israeli complicity with that country would embarrass them. Putting these Congressmen on the defensive could also soften their opposition to a proposed new arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

But it was probably erroneous to suppose that any of these things triggered the campaign. A Wall Street Journal story, which divulged a State Department report on alleged Israeli violations ignored by pro-Israel American bureaucrats, had been in preparation for a long time. This story affords a glimpse into one of the most likely forces behind the leaks: administration officials are quoted as threatening to lift the licenses of Israeli arms manufacturers now permitted both to receive American technology and to sell to the American military.

This is not only an implicit threat to cripple Israel’s military industry unless the Shamir government becomes more “flexible.” It also reflects a fear of Israeli competition in a shrinking arms market.

The trouble in which the American defense industries find themselves, and their readiness to resort to dirty tricks to eliminate the competition, should not be underestimated. The U.S. defense budget has been substantially cut; tens of thousands have been laid off; and some of the major military industries are on the verge of collapse. In seeking markets around the world, these industries often discover that Israeli products have preceded them. They have much to gain by preventing Israel from selling arms.

Yet none of these anti-Israel elements would have been as outrageous in their charges, nor would middle-echelon bureaucrats have dared leak unverified intelligence reports, had the Bush administration not created a fertile ground for such actions and at least tacitly sanctioned them.

Indeed, the mood had become so charged that even the more sober press threw all caution and decency to the winds. For example, before the American inspection team sent to Israel had had a chance to examine the Patriot missiles there—a task it performed not only with meticulous thoroughness but with the hauteur, detachment, and suspicion reserved for arrant natives of a banana republic—the New York Times was already impatiently preaching retribution. “Stern sanctions [on Israel] would send an appropriate message: fair punishment for all proliferators,” the Times editorialized.

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Ironically, it is precisely the issue of arms proliferation which constitutes the most dismaying and dangerous aspect of this whole sorry saga. Not Israeli-initiated proliferation, however, but American. For with the demise of the Soviet empire, the U.S. has become by far the biggest supplier of weaponry to the Arab countries. The recently retired chief of the Israeli air force, Avihu Bin Nun, estimates that 75 percent of the advanced weaponry now deployed by the Arab armies is American. Efforts by Israel’s friends in Congress to stop these sales—amounting to tens of billions of dollars—have been largely unsuccessful.

True, most of these weapons systems—some, as mentioned, containing crucial Israeli improvements—have been sold to the relatively moderate regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But the Arab armies exchange technological and tactical information. Iraq and Jordan do so to this day. The Saudis exchanged weapons and information with Iraq before the Gulf War, and still do with Syria. (The revelations to this effect in the Los Angeles Times last April only confirmed what Israelis have known for a long time.)

This massive proliferation of state-of-the-art hardware and knowledge has enabled the Arab armies to leap forward by several technological generations. Israel is thereby being presented with what Bin Nun calls “an intolerable situation”: the loss of its qualitative superiority to the Arab armies surrounding it.

Israel is still defined as a non-NATO ally, and even the Bush administration repeats the “we’ll preserve Israel’s qualitative superiority” mantra, but in fact the U.S. no longer shares its most advanced technologies with Israel. In the prevailing anti-Israel mood, the executive branch routinely sabotages deliveries approved by Congress and the relevant bureaucracies. Parts and weapons are habitually held up, and the $700-million worth of surplus equipment pledged during the Gulf War has never been delivered. Nor has the administration kept most of the other promises of strategic investments in Israel it made during that war.

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The danger to Israel in all this is clear enough. For one thing, having abandoned the production of its own fighter plane, the Lavi, Israel is dependent on the U.S. for the backbone of its air force—its first line of defense—as well as for other fundamental components of its defense posture.

But the even greater danger in the administration’s policy lies in the impression it imparts to the Arab regimes. These Arab regimes (and Iran) have been deterred from attacking Israel at least partly because of their certainty that the U.S. would come to its rescue—not with troops, but with arms and political clout. With the disappearance of such certainty, the temptation to view Israel as eminently vulnerable may become well-nigh irresistible.

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