TEL AVIV — The Israeli Knesset voted 45 to 29 Wednesday against a bill that would have required the government to impose tougher defense export licensing restrictions on countries or end users deemed in serious violation of human rights.
The bill, sponsored by lawmakers from the left-wing Meretz Party, sought to confer a larger role on the Israeli Foreign Ministry in vetting marketing and export license requests to the Defense Ministry's Export Licensing Bureau.
Under a law passed in 2007 – in large part due to US government pressure to break the Defense Ministry's decades-old monopoly on export licensing matters – the nation's diplomats have a seat at the table as well as effective veto power over decisions made by MoD experts.
But the proposed law sought to go further.
It would have required MoD to reject requests if the Foreign Ministry determined that end users or armed branches of a customer nation committed serious abuses of human rights. The bill included a waiver provision that would have allowed such requests to go through, provided that the Foreign Ministry determined that said country was acting to bring those responsible for violations to justice.
Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper reported earlier in the week that not only was the Defense Ministry opposed to the bill, but also the Foreign Ministry, which feared politicization and public exposure of countries deemed ineligible for Israeli arms transfers.
The bill would have required, according to Ha'aretz, that the Foreign Ministry publish a list of nations banned from Israeli arms exports due to human rights violations.
"Revealing information concerning the policy on the defense exports of the State of Israel is contrary to the interests of Israel, and by nature has implications on the bilateral and multilateral relations with diplomatic, security and economic aspects with end-user nations," the Foreign Ministry wrote in its objection to the bill, according to Ha'aretz.
But Tamar Zandberg, one of the bill's sponsors, said the proposed legislation was essentially "a translation into Hebrew" of the US Arms Export Control Act. In a Knesset statement released Wednesday, she claimed that defense exports "is one of the most muzzled subjects" in Israel.
The proposed law, she said, was beneficial "not only for the defense of human rights, but for the exporters themselves, because they would be able to know with certainty that they are not assisting crimes and are immune from international legal action."
In their explanation to lawmakers, the bill's sponsors noted that MoD has granted 400,000 marketing and export licenses to 130 countries and "additional parties" in recent years.
"Unfortunately, there are not 130 democratic countries. From the UN Arms Register, it is known that during the years, Israeli defense equipment went to countries that were involved at the time in serious violations of human rights."
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, speaking on behalf of the government, said the bill was unnecessary, given the substantial input already accorded to the Foreign Ministry. "This proposal attempts to limit the judgment of the Ministry of Defense. It is unnecessary and doesn't add a thing to the decision-making process that already exists," he said.
He noted that Israeli export policies are already in compliance with the United Nations and that Israel is bound to honor all UN-imposed arms embargoes.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.