Back in 2017, I published a story under Israeli gag order about the Israeli drone manufacturer, Aeronautics, whose executives were panting to sell tens of millions of dollars of their military drones Azerbaijan. Yossi Melman broke the initial story. But to this day, he cannot say which Israeli company was involved, nor which country was interested in buying the drones.
So Aeronautics sent its drone pilots and top executives to that country to seal the deal. But there was one major hitch: the Azeri military high command demanded a demonstration of the drone’s capability. But they didn’t want just any demonstration, they wanted it to actually attack an Armenian army position in contested Nagorno-Karabakh to see how effective it would be in a real battle situation.
The Israeli drone operators were horrified. They were prepared to teach Azeri army officers how to operate the drones, but actually attacking the Armenian army was not what they signed up for. So they balked, then refused outright. Then a strange thing happened. As I mentioned, Aeronautics were chomping at the bit. They would do anything to get the deal done. So one of its top executives on the scene himself flew the drone and attacked the Armenians. He even donned an Azeri military uniform to do so. Luckily, none of their troops were hurt.
When they returned to Israel, the drone techs reported the incident to police and defense ministry officials, who began an immediate investigation. The defense ministry revoked Aeronautics export license. The company CEO was forced out (he’d also been accused of insider trading). It seemed that someone directly responsible for this cockamamie idea would be held accountable.
However, anyone who believed the company itself would suffer any punishment was under the false impression that Israel observes the rule of law. Actually, it observes the rule of the military-political elite. Behind the scenes, the outcome was fixed by a hidden hand. As Melman notes, among the company’s executives were Omri Sharon and Eitay Ashkenazi (sons respectively of Ariel Sharon and former IDF chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi), former IAF commander, Eitan Ben Eliyahu, and former Israeli Navy chief, Yedidya Yaari. That’s more than enough firepower to sink a battleship…or derail a criminal investigation.
Their first stop was the district court, where they sought and received a gag order from a pliant judiciary always amenable to the needs of the military-intelligence apparatus. The hearing was, of course, in a closed court. the better to suppress this embarrassing episode. Melman and his attorney appeared in court to object to the gag order. But they were excluded from the hearing, lest they offer convincing evidence that all the actors, in what the reporter called this “theater of the absurd,” were engaged in a sham. All this prevented either Melman or any other Israeli reporter from exposing the scandal except in broad, vague terms. Which is the reason I published my own story here.
It also didn’t hurt that both the Mossad and IDF special forces unit offered a legal brief claiming that exposing the incident in the media would harm Israel’s national security. How revealing that an Israeli weapons dealer engaged in an act of war against a foreign nation with whom Israel was not at war, was given protected status. In addition, the Azeri defense minister visited Israel, where the concerns of his leadership over the scandal were a top issue:
Perhaps the most important factor behind [Defense Minister] Hasanov’s trip, however, was was Israeli Aeronautics Defense Systems’ (ADS) decision to temporarily block the Orbitier-K1 drone deal with Azerbaijan. ADS specifically froze the deal following reported allegations that the company’s operators, under Baku’s request, had tested new drones over Armenian targets in the Karabakh conflict zone.
Hasanov avowed that the military-intelligence collaboration of both states would be harmed by such media reporting. Melman adds that state media, under the thumb of corrupt dictator, Ilhan Aliyev, also insulted and reviled him personally, calling him an Armenian agent. Aliyev also threatened to disrupt mutual relations unless the indictments were quashed.
Only two weeks after Aeronautics export license was reinstated, it signed a $13-million deal to maintain drones it had already sold to Azerbaijan. Pres. Aliyev said in 2016 that total Israeli arms sales to his country were nearly $5-billion. These weapons and other drones sold to the country by Elbit systems played a key role in the 2020 was against Armenia, giving it a decisive edge in the fighting. This is yet another example of Israel’s massive arms export industry fueling conflict around the global. The Jerusalem Post article reporting Aeronautics sale was ordered removed under the aforementioned gag order. But a copy is cached by Google and linked above.
There are other geo-strategic reasons for the military-intelligence apparatus to treat this case gingerly. Azerbaijan borders Iran and Israel uses its territory to maintain listening posts and other intelligence assets to spy on the Iranians. The Azeris have even set aside an entire military airfield for Israeli use. I’ve written as well that an Israeli company announced it would build a “smart city” in the Azeri countryside bordering Iran. My strong suspicion is this is a cover for developing further surveillance facilities in Israel’s ongoing efforts to maintain a close eye on Iran’s military and nuclear infrastructure.
Returning to the Aeronautics case, the fix was in. All the stars were aligned to suppress this sordid episode and prevent the average Israeli from hearing about the atrocious behavior of its weapons industry. But a funny thing happened on the way to Baku, Israel’s state prosecutor defied the odds and the powers-that-be and filed indictments against Aeronautics and three of its senior executives. In this case, the decision validated democratic values and the rule of law. Of course, it remains to be seen whether justice will be done and these officials get the punishment they deserve. It’s quite possible they will never be fully prosecuted.
But the four years in which Melman valiantly fought against the security services’ censor on behalf of transparency took their toll on his belief in the system. He notes that in his numerous appearances before Israeli judges in hearings in which he was seeking the removal of a gag order, he faced judges famed for their liberal humane values; and right-wing judges. All to a person shared the same approach: when the security apparatus said “jump,” they responded: “how high?” They stood ramrod straight and saluted before the representatives of state power.
They did this not only in this particular instance, but in almost every other one related to Israeli military affairs. When human rights attorney Eitay Mack asked the Supreme Court to stop Israel from arming genocidal regimes like Myanmar, South Sudan or the Philipines, and corrupt dictatorships like Azerbaijan, Rwanda, Uganda, and Saudi Arabia, the response was always the same: who are we judges to second guess the generals and intelligence chiefs? Not only did they reject Mack’s appeals, they slapped a gag order on their own decision so the Israeli public would not know that the judiciary had ratified Israel’s collaboration with genocide.
Melman goes even farther: he accuses Israel of being held hostage by its own version of the Deep State:
…In Israel, this dubious title is worthy of the defense establishment, which operates as a state within a state and does almost as much as it pleases, without effective parliamentary oversight, and with close cooperation and the helping hand of the judiciary. This combined pincer movement exhausts the few who are still willing to fight for justice, human rights and morality and against injustice. I, too, feel exhausted and struggling as Don Quixote tilting at the windmills. I have lost the desire to petition in the courts again. But perhaps I’ll try one more time.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.