TEL AVIV — As Russian and Georgian forces battle over South Ossetia, Israel finds itself on the defensive.
Though a favoured arms supplier for the former Soviet republic, the Jewish state now appears to be at pains to play down these ties rather than risk a crisis with Moscow.
It is more than just sound diplomacy.
With Russia widely expected to supply Tehran with advanced anti-aircraft missiles that could fend off a pre-emptive strike on Iranian nuclear sites, Israel has a vested interest in not appearing to be in Georgia’s corner and losing whatever lobbying power it has in Moscow.
With troops, tanks and warplanes clashing in the Caucasus last weekend in the worst armed face-off Europe has seen in decades, the Russian media queried where their Georgian foes had acquired weapons and tactical wherewithal.
Israel’s name came up.
The link is well known. Aside from Israel’s prowess in military matters, it enjoys a personal rapport with a number of senior colleagues of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who has been trying to align his country with the West.
Saakashvili’s defence minister, Davit Kezerashvili, is a Jew who spent several years living in Israel. So is another cabinet minister, Temur Yakobashvili.
According to Jerusalem sources, the Georgian government, enriched by Caspian oil, has long sent emissaries on “shopping trips” to the arms firms in Israel.
In parallel, Tbilisi has used retired Israeli generals, including Israel Ziv and Gal Hirsch, as consultants on how to build up Georgian armed forces.
“The Israelis should be proud of the fact that Georgian soldiers received Israeli education and training and are fighting like I don’t know what,” Yakobashvili, speaking Hebrew, told Israel’s Channel 10 television in a telephone interview.
The full extent of Israel’s defence exports to Georgia is an official secret, but Jerusalem sources were keen to dispel the sense of a strategic alliance against Moscow.
“We have good relations with both countries and are loath to upset either,” said one.
The sources insist that when Georgia-Russia tensions began spiraling several months ago, Israel decided to scale back its arms sales.That move roughly coincided with the Russian air force’s shooting down of a Georgia spy drone that, it emerged, had been manufactured by the Israeli firm Elbit.
Whereas previously Georgia was allowed to buy offensive weapons such as tactical missiles, the deals were limited to “purely defensive” systems, the sources said.
A sale of Israeli tanks to Georgia that was proposed by Roni Milo, a former Tel Aviv mayor turned entrepreneur, was nixed by the Defence Ministry.
“When the issues in the balance included completing the construction of the nuclear reactor in Bushehr, [Iran], and supplying Iran and Syria with advanced defence systems, it was clear to everyone that with all due respect to the Israel Military Industries’ profits, there are a few things that are just a bit more important,” said Yoav Limor, an Israeli defence analyst.
Israel’s annual military dealings with Tbilisi are worth approximately $200 million a year, a defence source said, adding the figure is dwarfed by Georgian purchases from other arms suppliers such as the United States.
The Russian government has not openly accused Israel of arming its enemy, but there has been a menacing subtext to the rhetoric from Moscow.
In his speech to the UN Security Council last weekend, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin darkly denounced the Georgian commando units’ “foreign trainers.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said those who supplied Georgia with weapons should bear responsibility for the bloodshed
But Israel Radio on Sunday quoted the spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv as voicing satisfaction with Jerusalem’s policies regarding Georgia.