Israel's Record

Israel's Governments, 1991-98

Both the Likud and the Labour Party governments which have held power in Israel since the beginning of the Balkan conflict have taken a pro-Serbian stand. Until mid-July 1995 - that is, during some four years of genocide, `ethnic cleansing' and all the rest - they consistently refused to join in the world wide condemnation of the Serbs for their war crimes and crimes against humanity. In this way, and in other, more direct ways too, they extended political and moral support to the Serbs. They also bear at least some responsibility - just how much cannot yet be determined - for the fact that the Serbs have apparently acquired significant quantities of weapons in Israel. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs consistently adopted a strongly pro-Serbian stance, occasionally relayed to the media by anonymous ministry sources. While the government apparently never held a proper discussion of the war in the Balkans and of what Israel's position on it should be, the Knesset (Israel's parliament) did. But the misgivings and criticism voiced in the Knesset exerted no significant influence on the government.

Some Israeli citizens and a couple of members of the Knesset were dismayed by the fact that the government of Israel, unlike western and other governments (and major Jewish organizations abroad), desisted from issuing any official condemnation of Serbia's crimes. Their enquiries and appeal were of no avail. On a particularly significant occasion, when in the summer of 1992 Israeli Arabs and Jews found a common cause (something that does not happen very often) and were demonstrating together against the camps the Serbs were operating in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Knesset Speaker Dr Shevach Weiss was there on behalf of the political establishment. He chose the occasion to praise what he termed `the glorious history of the Serbian people'.

When two Knesset members, Dedi Zucker (of the social-liberal Meretz party) and Rafael Ellul (Labour), first attempted to raise the issue of Israel' stand on the Balkan genocide, Dr Weiss decided not to allow the motion, as neither he nor the Foreign Ministry had any information on the Serbian atrocities. That was at the time these atrocities were making first-page headlines all over the world. Additional pressure to prevent the debate was exerted from the Government Secretary's office. The two Knesset members, joined by Abdul Wahad Darawshe (Arab Democratic Party), succeeded in raising the issue in the Knesset some ten days later (5 August 1992), but were frustrated in both their main aims. Foreign affairs minister Peres granted that atrocities were being perpetrated, but consistently refused to identify their perpetrators and condemn them. Instead, he issued a condemnation of no-one in particular: `the government of Israel', he said, `emphatically and unequivocally condemns concentration camps, the killing, the shocking attacks on innocent women and children'. And the minutes show how Dr Weiss, who was chairing the debate, made sure that the foreign affairs minister could avoid saying a single word on the repeatedly pressed question of Israel's diplomatic ties with Serbia. The war in the Balkans was subsequently discussed in the Knesset on several occasions, but none of the criticism voiced by Knesset members succeeded in making a dent in the pro-Serb stance of the government.

This was to remain Israel's official position. The government would not issue even the mildest condemnation of the Serbs. Prime minister Rabin and foreign affairs minister Peres withstood all attempts by reporters, in Israel and abroad, to get them to do so. All that the Israeli government could be pressured int doing was to express regret at the events, as if these were not crimes but rather a natural catastrophe. At best, there were utterly abstract `condemnations, that acknowledged no difference between the criminal and the victim. Here is one characteristic example:

Israel expects that the wave of violence in the territories of the former Yugoslavia, which has reached its peak in the terrible killing in the Sarajevo market, will soon come to an end. Israel expresses its regret at the death of innocent civilians, and its hope that the efforts being made to settle the conflict in a peaceful way will soon prove fruitful [Ha'aretz, 7 Feb. 1994].

By consistently refusing to go beyond this sort of thing, the government was making a statement. The point of moral condemnation is not solely, or even primarily, to influence the conduct of those condemned. We condemn in order to give expression to our commitment to the values that have been flouted, to our belief in the rights that have been violated, the principles that have been breached. We also do so in order to express solidarity with the victims: not merely in the face of harm they have sustained, but in the face of injustice done to them. And who and what we are, morally speaking, is not determined only by our own actions, but also by the way we respond to the actions of others. Now although both condemnation and regret are responses to something undesirable, their function is not the same. Regret is appropriate in the face of an unfortunate event, such as a natural catastrophe. Condemnation does not relate to an event in nature, but to a human action, moreover, it does not concern unfortunate consequences of the action, but relates to its internal side, to the intentions and motives of the actor - that is, to the distinctively moral aspect of the action. Therefore regret can never do the job condemnation does, and can never be a substitute for it. When, in the face of a crime, instead of condemning it we only express regret, we are thereby virtually saying that no crime has been perpetrated. We are saying that what happened was merely an unfortunate event, an event whose consequences have adversely affected someone. The victim of the crime will have no difficulty understanding this message of moral denial an moral indifference.

This policy of refusing to condemn or name names earned the government much praise from the local Serbian lobby. By sticking to this policy, the government of Israel was giving official sanction to the efforts of the lobby's genocide-deniers. They were not merely voicing their own opinion; they were proclaiming the government's version of the events.

It was only at a very late stage of the Balkan conflict that the government deviated, for a while, from this policy. In mid-July 1995, with genocide and `ethnic cleansing' in the Balkans in its fifth year, foreign affairs minister Peres, prime minister Rabin, and minister for environment issues Yosi Sarid finally conceded that the atrocities were being perpetrated by human agency and that that agency, for the most part, were the Serbs. For some reason, the first two chose somewhat unusual venues for doing so. Mr Peres was meeting his counterparts from Egypt and Tunisia in Vienna, and joined them in a statement `condemning the Serbian aggression in Bosnia'.2 A few days later Mr Rabin was manoeuvred into it by the moderator of a Jordanian television programme on Bosnia-Herzegovina, who talked to him on the telephone and inquired about his position on the subject. It turned out that Mr Rabin too was now condemning the Serbs - at least for the benefit of Jordanian television-watchers. In a Knesset debate on the war in Bosnia held on July 19, 1995, Mr Sarid spoke on behalf of the government. He, too, was now willing to condemn those responsible for the atrocities. But those, in his view, were only Bosnian Serbs. Serbia itself was conveniently left out of the picture altogether - rather in line with the well-known and repeatedly made claim of President Slobodan Milosevic that Serbia was not involved in a war with anybody.

It is not clear just what brought about these statements; the government never explained its reasons to the public. One might surmise that the news of the fall of Srebrenica in the second week of July and the massacre of about 6,000 Bosnian men - in part civilians and in par POWs - which were making headlines in Israel and all over the world [Honig and Both, 1996] were simply too much of a strain on the pro-Serbian stance the government of Israel had consistently maintained up to that time. Anyway, things were soon back to normal. The condemnation of (Bosnian) Serbs was not repeated, and soon after the Dayton agreement was in place the ties between Israel and Serbia were developing at full speed. Today, there appear to be rich and strong political, economic, cultural, and military relations between the two countries. Unsurprisingly, the current circle of Serb repression and atrocities in Kosovo, has at the time of writing provoked no critical comments from Israel's political establishment.

But the government of Israel has done much more than support the Serbs in this somewhat indirect way. In the late summer of 1991, with the Serbian onslaught on Croatia in full swing and Serbia well on its way to becoming an international pariah, the government decided to establish diplomatic ties with it. Serbia soon opened its embassy in Tel Aviv. The ambassador-designate was Dr Budimir Kosutic, who had been vice-premier of the Belgrade government. He was about to be elected the first president of the Serb `republic' set up in the Serb-held, `ethnically cleansed' parts of Croatia, when it turned out that he might be even more useful to the Serbian cause as Serbia's ambassador to Israel.3 The sanctions imposed on Serbia by the UN prevented Dr Kosutic's submission of credentials and the opening of an Israeli embassy in Belgrade at the time. But that has not prevented the embassy, first under Dr Kosutic and then under a chargé d'affaires, from carrying on business as usual and engaging in intense lobbying and public relations activity.

As a result of the Israeli-Arab conflict and Israel's defiance of many UN decisions and of regional and international opinion, Israel was often treated as a pariah state both by the states of the region and the larger part of the world community. That only reinforced Israel's alienation from, and contempt for, world opinion and the UN in particular. It tended to be interpreted as further proof of Israel's moral superiority to a groundlessly hostile and incurably anti-Semitic world. On the political level, it often brought closely together Israel and other pariah states, such as South Africa. The purveyors of Serbian propaganda were quick to make the most of that, and have been emphasizing the international pariah theme in their efforts directed at Israeli and Jewish audiences. They have not been very successful in this as far as the Jewish diaspora is concerned, but the message has been echoed in Israel. Thus Mr Ori Orr, chairperson of the Knesset Foreign Relations and Security Committee, said on his visit to Belgrade in July 1994: "We have a good memory. We know what it is to live under sanctions and boycott ...Every UN resolution against us was adopted by a two-thirds majority...'. He went on to promise further support for Serbia, including help in improving the latter's international position and image.4 Overall, the relations between the two countries were developing so well that by the mid-summer of 1994 the US administration had vice-president Al Gore summon the Israeli ambassador and warn Israel not to go any further with it (Yediot Ahronot, 19 July 1994).

No account of Israel's record would be complete without mentioning, at least in brief, the matter of arms supplies to Serbia (in breach of UN sanctions). Indications have been accumulating from various sources in the Balkans, Israel and elsewhere since 1991. The press in various parts of ex-Yugoslavia has reported on this more than once, and the Serbs themselves have never felt the need to be secretive about it. In 1992, Ms Dobrila Gajic-Glisic, who had served as secretary of the Belgrade war minister's office, published a book on the recent history of the Serbian army. She described a major arms deal with Israel made by Mr Jezdimir Vasiljevic, a leading Serbian banker known for his close ties to President Milosevic:

Certainly one of the biggest deals was made by Jezdimir Vasiljevic in October 1991 in Israel. For understandable reasons, the details of that deal with the Jews were not made public at the time. It was a complicated and difficult deal. But it was made successfully [Gajic-Glisic, 1992:23].

This transaction took place at the time the Serbs were razing Vukovar to the ground and beginning to shell Dubrovnik. Mr Vasiljevic arrived in Israel in February 1993 and announced that he would be staying in the country for some time. He apparently stayed for at least a year.

According to a report published in The European in 1993, citing western intelligence agencies, the Jews of Sarajevo had been allowed to leave the besieged town in a number of airlifts and convoys in 1992 as a part of a deal involving Israeli arms supplies to the Serbs.5. On 2 December 1994, Joel Weinberg, an Israeli activist of an inter-faith humanitarian organization who had just returned from Sarajevo, was interviewed on the Channel Two television programme Next Question? He recounted how a UN officer had asked him to look at fragments of the case of a mortar shell that had exploded on the Sarajevo airport runway; the officer could not make out the strange letters. It turned out they were Hebrew. Mr Weinberg, who had served in the Israeli Defense Forces, easily identified the case as belonging to an IDF-ordnance 120mm mortar shell. He also testified to having seen Israeli-made Uzi automatic rifles in the hands of the Serbs.

On 2 August 1995, Israeli state television reported in its evening news programme that `private Israeli arms merchants' had made a deal to supply American-made missiles to the Serbs. (In Israel, as in other countries, private arms deals must have government approval. Israel has a history of military collaboration with the apartheid regime of Sough Africa and military dictatorships in Central and South America. That has sometimes involved private, or `private', arms merchants.) There have been attempts to bring the matter of Israeli arms supplies to the Serbs into the open and to initiate a public debate.6 But the Israeli public showed no interest in the subject.

On the other hand, it should also be noted that on two greatly publicized occasions Israel sent some medicines and bandages to Sarajevo. On another occasion that was given much publicity, in February 1993 Israel admitted 83 Bosnian refugees. Mr Yossi Sarid, minister for environment issues at the time, who met the group on behalf of the government, made a point of warning them that the gesture must not be taken to imply Israel's recognition of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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