Israel, Star Wars and Soviet Jews

IN the midst of Shimon Peres’s triumphant visit to London, Israel announced that she had agreed to  participate in Mr Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative—Star Wars. In March 1985, Israel was invited to detail—in Mr Caspar Weinberger’s words—”the areas of your country’s research excellence that you deem most promising for this programme”. Since it has taken almost a year for unequivocal response to emerge, it is clear that there have been reservations and indeed opposition the part of the cabinet and a number of public figures in Israel. Mr Peres has no doubt been attracted by the huge budget proposed by the Reagan administration. Some tens of billions of dollars have been made available for an initial five-year research period, followed by estimates of up to a trillion dollars for development and deployment in decades to come. It is argued that there are overwhelming economic reasons for Israel to cure a sliver of the financial cake. And it will ‘me as no surprise that the components of the military-industrial complex in Israel have been the most vociferous in lobbying the government. The technological spin-off could indeed be an investment in terms of future defence requirements and this end, Israel has been bargaining with the United States to be apportioned just that area of search. Such technology would provide the basis defence against belligerent states who do not are a common border with Israel, yet are within e realm of possessing long range missiles. Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya falls into this category and his support for the Abu Nidal group does nothing to discourage the prospect of such an unthinkable scenario. On the surface, there are apparently valid reasons for enthusiastically accepting the offer of e US government. At deeper levels the rewards such compliance are dubious.

Within Israel, as Professor Shlomo Avineri has pointed out, there has been very little debate on the subject. It has been submerged under a host of more immediate concerns such as the Middle East conflict which naturally rise to the top of the agenda. However, an issue that is less visible is not less important. The problems of the Israel-Palestine conflict have also extinguished the possibility of an anti-nuclear peace movement. In Western Europe and the United States, such movements have performed a valuable role in initiating debate and in calling to account governments who had hitherto considered themselves the repository of all wisdom on such life or death issues. In Israel, there has been no such pressure.

Moreover, the military-industrial complex has flexed its not inconsiderable political muscle and thereby influenced Israel’s decision. Given Israel’s dire economic situation, it could not be otherwise. Yet it is a sad reflection on the reputations of past Labour prime ministers of Israel that they have encouraged the growth of an arms industry such that today about one quarter of the labour force is employed in defence industries and one half of all industrial workers in defence-related projects. Moreover, Israel’s ratio of defence exports to total exports is the highest in the world.

Ideally, the military-industrial complex should serve solely as a tool for the national security of the Jewish state. Instead, it also determines areas of economic and foreign policy in Israel. The Chief Rabbi, Sir Immanuel Jakobovits, has been one of the few Diaspora leaders to oppose this tendency. In an address to Jewish ex-servicemen and women in London in 1982, he commented caustically: “And how much sadder still that the people meant to export ‘Torah from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem’ is now among the leading exporters of Esau’s trade, competing for the blessing ‘And you shall live by your sword’ and even make money from it”.

Moreover, it is worth noting that despite many considerable achievements in his short period in office, Mr Peres has not laid down any guidelines to change course in this domain. Perhaps, acceptance of Star Wars was thus a foregone conclusion, but it remains an unpalatable fact that the export of arms and technology is essentially a raw product of the State of Israel.

The official approach declares that Star Wars is a defensive weapon poised to ward off incoming missiles. Yet many Israeli scientists, together with eminent colleagues in other countries, have stated their belief that Star Wars will simply not work. Moreover, such an umbrella will cover the United States and not Israel. Star Wars is not directly related to Israel’s security needs. And even if the technological spin-off was advantageous in this sphere, it is clear that Israel’s enemies could devise other methods to bring nuclear devices into the country in addition to delivering them in the warheads of missiles.

The agreement to participate in Star Wars will undoubtedly draw Israel into a strategic alliance with the United States. Whilst it may prevent a future American “sellout” of Israel, it also could curtail freedom of manoeuvre and independence of policy making. Paradoxically it could fundamentally undermine American public support for Israel. A paper published by Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, comments:

If, in fact, the Strategic Defence Initiative invitation is a case of the Defence Department adding Israeli gloss to a problematic defence policy issue in order to achieve easier passage in Congress, then by supporting SDI, Israel will have taken sides in a major domestic American debate on nuclear war, placing itself clearly on the side of Republican-Conservative opinion and alienating its traditional Democratic-Liberal supporters. By doing so, moreover, Israel would essentially be basing its future relationship with the United States on a primarily military-strategic partnership, and might thereby cut itself off from that sector of the American public that supports Israel for fundamentally moral reasons. This kind of shift in the character of the American-Israeli relationship could prove to be destabilising, for while strategic interests can shift in the short term, moral ties serve as the basis for enduring international alignments.

Perhaps the most salient objection is that Israel will be converted into a global strategic adversary of the USSR. Would Israel now be perceived as a direct obstacle to the national security interests of the USSR? The Jaffee Center paper comments that “should participation in SDI lead at a later stage to the deployment in Israel of any of the missile defence subsystems—ranging from satellite communications equipment to actual forward based elements of the missile defence system itself—then Israel could become a significant Soviet nuclear target.”

Israeli participation in Star Wars has a significant relevance to the plight of Soviet Jewry. The question of human rights in the USSR and the hope for unrestricted emigration unfortunately depends in part on good superpower relations. It should be noted that since President Reagan assumed office, only 15,000 Jews were given permission to leave the USSR. Between 1968 and his  accession to the Presidency, a quarter of a million Jews were granted exit permits.

What then of the 400,000 Jews who have requested vyzovs (invitations) from Israel, but who have not left the USSR? Whilst a number of public figures including Mr Peres have been enthusiastic about Israeli participation in Star Wars, some diplomatic sources have commented in the Israeli press that acceptance of the offer would retard efforts to help Soviet Jews to achieve their freedom. Professor Shevah Weiss, a Labour member of the Knesset, has suggested, perhaps in jest, that Israel should reject Star Wars on condition that the USSR allows half a million Jews to leave. Could the government of Israel even consider such a hypothesis? No doubt Israeli prevarication in accepting Star Wars resulted from involved discussion, but the final confirmation to proceed suggests that economic and other considerations have outweighed other demands including the one to “let my people go”.

As the promises of mass emigration evaporate, it seems that the leadership of the Jewish emigration movement are destined to become martyrs for the cause by a shrewd combination of political manipulation and official vengeance. Suspended in the Soviet limbo, they have assumed the role of educators and emissaries to the assimilated Jewish masses. Heinrich Heine wrote that “the Jews are the people of the spirit, and whenever they return to their spirit they are great, splendid, and put to shame and conquer their rude oppressors”. Anatoly Shcharansky’s courageous work for both Jews and non-Jews in the USSR is a monument to the depth of that commitment. His release, however, does not mean that the gates have been opened for all. The linkage between Jewish emigration and superpower relations remains. No doubt, a sophisticated rationale will be expounded, but Israel’s participation in Star Wars will not help such brave people as Vladimir Slepak and Ida Nudel as well as many other long term refuseniks who have been trying to leave the Soviet Union for the last fifteen years. It is yet another obstacle in their path to Zion. Let us hope that despite all the forces ranged against them, their day of liberation will be soon.

Jewish Quarterly Spring 1986


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