Argentina and Chile do not have much in common—in fact they may go to war over the future of three islands in the Beagle Channel at the southern tip of South America. But apart from being military dictatorships they share one other characteristic; both are among the 19 countries in the world who buy or have bought arms from Israel. Intelligence reports in Washington indicate that Israeli arms sales this year could top the $l-billion mark—double the figure five years ago and almost on a par with such “bigleague” weapons exporters as France ($6 billion) and Britain ($1.5 billion), and dwarfing by comparison Canada’s annual exports of $336 million.
Official U.S. concern is growing because of the sophistication of the weapons offered—everything from the Uzi submachine gun, the most effective of its kind in the world, to the plagiarized but highly effective Kfir fighter; and the concern is certainly not lessened by the list of clients, many of whom, like Argentina and Chile, are on bad terms with each other and, in addition, are scarcely staunch supporters of democracy.
In this respect Latin America is an area of particular concern. If Argentina and Chile do decide on a military solution to their dispute—Argentina was desperately trying to arrange eleventhhour talks last week—one of the weapons sure to be deployed would be the lethal Israeli Shafrir missile, modelled on the U.S. Super Sidewinder and one of a generation of heat-seeking missiles which three successive administrations have been trying to keep out of Latin America.
Then there is the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, which last year acquired 60
Israeli secondhand armored cars (they came in very handy against the Sandinista rebels this autumn) and may lately have been looking for more hardware from the same source. Only last week the Observer News Service reported that Mexico had threatened to cut off oil supplies to Israel if it continued to supply arms to Nicaragua, and while this report could not be confirmed in Washington or Jerusalem, that, in itself, is not surprising given the intensely secret nature of the trade.
According to London’s well-informed International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Israel is known to have
sold arms (or STOL aircraft, almost invariably used for paratroop transportation or other military purposes) to: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Nepal, Nicaragua, Rhodesia, Salvador, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Uganda. There is no proof, but it seems likely that Greece and Kenya have also been customers.
Much of Israel’s arms production de-
pends on “borrowing” designs from established manufacturers, usually American. “It’s a very clever way of doing business which, while legal, clearly circumvents the intent of Congress,” one senior U.S. official said recently. Congress provides about $1 billion a year in foreign military sales credits for Israel and, in essence, Israel is selling U.S. technology—in many cases without approval.
American concern focuses on three points: First, the Pentagon is frightened that ultra-sensitive technology could find its way into the hands of enemies; second, Congress is perturbed that the sales of arms, particularly in Africa, South America and the Far East, could undermine U.S. foreign policy; and third, economists and labor union officials are painfully aware that the Israeli arms industry is increasingly threatening U.S. jobs.
Although no exact figures are available, Pentagon sources say that South Africa is Israel’s biggest customer. Pretoria is currently buying six 400-ton Reshef fast patrol boats and its cordon sanitaire along the Angolan border—an elaborate defence system to keep out guerrillas — was built under Israeli advice. “In this the Israelis are undoubtedly world experts,” says the IISS.
Israel has also sold South Africa at least 24 separate Gabriel missile systems. This missile—developed by engineers in Tel Aviv from Soviet and U.S. technology—is a deadly surface-to-surface weapon that proved itself in the 1973 war. The Dvora, a small but fast missile attack craft designed for hitand-run missions, has also gone to South Africa as have large quantities of Uzi submachine guns. Furthermore, South Africa is at least partially financing the development of the next generation of Israeli warships and expects to buy some of the first vessels produced.
South Africa would like to buy quantities of Israel’s Kfir fighters, modelled on France’s Mirage 5, but this is one sale that has not gone through. The Kfir is powered by General Electric jet engines and Washington has embargoed their use. But Israel exports know-how as well as arms. Countries where its experts have supplied advice or training include Iran, Singapore, South Africa, Taiwan and, ironically in view of last week’s news (see page 41 ), Uganda. Before President Idi Amin fell out with them, as he has fallen out with so many of his would-be benefactors, the Israelis trained the Ugandan Air Force. Amin got his parachute training in Israel and, until recently anyway, still proudly wore his Israeli wings.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.