An Israeli arms company and the Azerbaijani military teamed up for an appalling lapse in judgement last month. As Maariv and the Jerusalem Post reported, in the course of finalizing a sale of the Orbiter 1K armed drone, a team from the Israeli company Aeronautics Defense Systems was asked to demonstrate the craft’s ability’s by carrying out an attack on an Armenian army position in Karabakh, a Yerevan-backed separatist region inside of Azerbaijani territory. Two Armenian soldiers were lightly injured in the ensuing assault. This week, Israel’s defense ministry export controls agency wisely cancelled Aeronautics Defense System’s export permit for the Orbiter 1K—luckily, it was just $20 million in business, rather than actual human life, that was lost as a result of this misadventure.
Israel produces a lot of products that other countries want, and the Jewish state is on pace to surpass $100 billion in exports in a single year for the first time in its history. Defense exports will account for around $6.5 billion of that, and Israel was the world’s 10th-largest military exporter in 2016.
Having one of the world’s leading domestic arms industries buoys the Israeli economy and makes the country indispensable to some of its international partners—including Azerbaijan, a majority Shiite Muslim nation and the second-largest purchaser of Israeli weapons last year. Israel’s military-industrial complex also makes the Jewish state better equipped to independently face the diverse security challenges confronting it at a given time. Still, weapons are not quite the same as SodaStream machines or cherry tomatoes. Countries use military-grade weapons to threaten or deter their enemies or perceived enemies, or to undertake violence at a state-level scale of organization. Arms transactions thus always come with unknowable potential costs attached.
The Karabakh incident is a case in point. The “frozen” Ngarno-Karabkh conflict, which has been raging in some form since the late 80s, is at a hair trigger. Deaths have spiked over the past couple of years, with Armenia and Azerbaijan fighting their deadliest battle in over a decade in April of last year. The geo-politics of the dispute over these majority ethnic-Armenian regions of Azerbaijan are fairly Byzantine, with Russia backing both sides to varying degrees, despite having military bases in Armenia. Yerevan has a warm relationship with Iran, and it’s almost certainly in the wrong as far as international law goes. Nonetheless, Armenian-backed militants currently occupy about a fifth of Azerbaijan’s territory. The irony of Israel siding with Azerbaijan hasn’t been lost on some observers: “Politically, Israel’s insistence on maintaining the status quo in the West Bank is actually similar to the Armenians’ position,” retired IDF general Ephraim Sneh wrote last year. “Here too, when it comes to ending the conflict, nationalist populism supersedes national interests.”
Israel has sold some $5 billion in weapons to Azerbaijan, and last month’s incident suggests that Baku’s patronage has a potential dark side. It wouldn’t have been in Israel’s national interest for one of its companies to have accidentally ignited a deadly international powder keg hundreds of miles from the country’s borders. Incidents like these are thankfully rare, but it only takes one of them to expose the moral and strategic hazards of Israel’s flourishing arms trade.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.