Israel: A Green Light on Imports from Western Suppliers

Although Israel has the biggest nuclear weapon and ballistic program in the Middle East, and is included on virtually every export control warning list, it is now being allowed to import almost everything it needs to keep its weapon programs going.

The reason, Western officials tell the Risk Report, is that Israel’s close relation to the United States has created a virtual taboo against mentioning Israel at meetings of the international export control regimes (the Nuclear Suppliers Group-NSG, the Australia Group-AG-and the Missile Technology Control Regime-MTCR) in which countries have agreed to restrict their sales of nuclear, missile and chemical/biological weapon technology. The only obstacle Israel now faces in nuclear imports is obtaining large items such as a nuclear power reactor. The Nuclear Suppliers Group insists on full-scope safeguards as a condition of export, which Israel does not meet.

“When it comes to Israel, there is little information-sharing…in fact, there is absolute silence…no one talks about ‘sensitive’ Israeli buyers,” says an Austrian official. A German official agrees. After listing the countries he tracks for proliferation, which include Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, North Korea, India and Syria, he adds with a wink: “And of course, Israel, I almost forgot–we also track Israel.” The official could not think of a recent case, however, where an export license had been denied to Israel.

A Swiss official argues that the current system amounts to “paper export controls,” in which Israel is allowed to get what it needs in practice despite the official control system. When it comes to Israel, he says, the Swiss are actually tougher than the Americans. “We don’t just give things to Israel like the United States does; we ask for test protocols for machine tools and we deny things to Israel based on end-users that the United States does not.”

A U.S. official responsible for tracking countries of proliferation concern recently confirmed that United States is not especially worried about Israeli proliferation. He told the Risk Report: “I don’t know of anybody in the [U.S.] government who really tracks Israel’s program closely. Very few people look at the Israeli nuclear weapon program in detail. It’s a big fact, and it will be changed only in the context of political developments on the ground.”

In 1994, the recent history of American nuclear-related exports to Israel was reviewed in a report by the General Accounting Office (GAO). It found that the United States routinely approves controlled equipment to Israel. The report quoted a State Department official who said that “while the United States does not endorse the Israeli nuclear program,” it has approved high-powered computers for Israeli organizations linked to the unsafeguarded Israeli nuclear weapon effort “because of the overall U.S.-Israeli relationship and the U.S. policy of maintaining Israel’s qualitative military superiority over its neighbors.”

This taboo against asking questions is even stronger in Israel, where discussion of the nuclear program is strictly off limits. The resulting silence makes it difficult even for Israeli companies to know how their products will be used. An employee of Ortal, an Israeli firm specializing in the diecasting of zinc and magnesium, tells the Risk Report that Ortal makes small parts for use in missiles, but that he is not supposed to know which missiles are involved. Ortal simply fills the orders for Taas (Israel Military Industries), the aerospace giant that builds Israeli rockets. Taas does not divulge even to Ortal how the parts are used.

Abraham Alexandrovitz (A. Alexandrovitz Inc.), a company that buys and sells specialized materials, plastics and rubbers from Europe, distributes these materials to manufacturers and factories throughout Israel, including the Atomic Energy Commission. A company employee admits that Alexandrovitz sells materials to Dimona, but he adds, “I am not even allowed to ask what the application is. If I did, we wouldn’t be allowed to sell there.”

This policy of secrecy means that exporters to Israel will have a hard time verifying that their products are not misused. An experienced Israeli trade consultant, who insisted on anonymity, told the Risk Report that discovering which small companies contribute to Israel’s nuclear and missile programs is next to impossible. “There is a great fear of business espionage in Israel. Companies hold information very closely. It is not like in the United States. Especially if you are inquiring about security-related activities, you will meet silence. People feel they could get in trouble for talking and they are very protective of Israel’s reputation and security.”