Israel guns for worldwide arms market

When it comes to weapons, as in so much else, Israel's reputation precedes it.

Six wars in the past 35 years have repeatedly drawn attention to Israel's innovative, battle-tested armaments - although the prowess of the Israeli armed forces actually reflects equal parts of fierce motivation, superior training and tactics, American military aid (both grants and hardware), and development of its own unique weapons.

Many of these well-tested Israeli weapons are now being sold worldwide - and there has been a new push since the Israeli military's spectacular performance in Lebanon last summer.

But because Israel is seen as a ''pariah state'' in international circles, especially in the third world where Arab influence is high, foreign sale of Israeli weapons often is viewed with considerably more suspicion than are the more prolific arms exports of NATO or Warsaw Pact countries.

In large measure, this is because, although Israel has found markets for its weapons in Europe and the Americas, it has been forced to turn primarily to other international pariahs for the bulk of its sales. Countries that buy Israeli weapons tend to be those that have a difficult time obtaining them elsewhere, that are right-wing in nature, and that are holding power against numerically superior native or foreign foes.

Before the fall of the Shah, Iran was Israel's biggest customer. Heading the list today, according to military sources, are Taiwan, South Africa, and Honduras. Since 1968, Israel's arms customers have also included Bolivia, Burma, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, pre-Mengistu Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, Kenya, Mexico, pre-Sandinista Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Singapore, Thailand, and Venezuela.

By far the most popular weapon Israel sells is the Uzi submachine gun, used by government security services and policemen throughout the world. The Uzi's maker, Israel Military Industries of Tel Aviv, estimates that 100 countries have purchased Uzis and more than 1 million of these small, reliable weapons have been sold since 1953.

Although Israel sells a wide variety of weapons - from parachutes to Peru all the way up the product line to ''Reshef'' gunboats equipped with Gabriel missiles to South Africa - the US State Department says most Israeli exports consist of small arms, ammunition, and communications equipment. No nation today can equip itself exclusively with Israeli weapons. Not even Israel can.

But if the Israeli government has its way, that will change. In recent years Israel has been moving into advanced production of its own aircraft, tanks, and ships. Once the Israeli Army's arsenal is full, these new weapons will make prized export items for countries that seek arms without the political strings that go with the purchase of American or Soviet weapons.

Israel already ranks seventh in world export of arms - quite high considering the small size of the nation and its relative youth. But according to Israel's chief scientist, Arieh Lavie, only 15 percent of Israel's industrial exports are military related. The big push instead is of ''science-based'' products for civilian use. Nevertheless, weapons exports are expanding along with all other Israeli industrial exports, since the country's economy is heavily dependent on its ability to sell abroad.

Israel at present is far from being self-sufficient in arms. Most of its weapons, in fact, are imported from the US. Some are co-produced or fitted with US or European parts. Even the new planes, tanks, and boats designed in Israel are mostly refinements of staples in American, British, or French arsenals.

The delta-wing Kfir fighter is based on the French Mirage, long the workhorse of the Israeli Air Force, and uses American-made General Electric engines. The new Merkava tank, which Defense Minister Ariel Sharon claims outclassed the Soviet-made, Syrian-commanded T-72s in combat in Lebanon last summer, is derived from the British Chieftain.

Though Israeli weapons are considered first class, it was actually American weapons that gave Israel its overwhelming advantage in Lebanon. Destruction of Syrian SAM-6 missile batteries in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and its field day over Syrian MIGs were made possible by American-made F-4 and F-16 aircraft, coordinated by the American E-4 flying command center.

Israel's campaign against Syrian forces in the mountains east of Beirut relied on American-made helicopter gunships to neutralize Syrian tanks that controlled the narrow, curving Beirut-Damascus highway from Baabda to Bhamdoun.

Nevertheless, Israel is determined to strengthen its own arms industry - mainly to make the country more immune from international, especially American, pressure but also to increase export earnings.

The new Merkava, a radically designed, low-profile tank that can carry four infantrymen, should find eager buyers throughout the world, since it seems ideal for street fighting. Military observers believed Israel would have relied on the Merkava had it decided to storm west Beirut; as it was, the Merkava was not really tested in this role.

Similarly, Israel's new Lavie fighter, which will be in production by the late 1980s, should be much sought after by countries seeking sophisticated aircraft but unable, for political reasons, to buy American or European products.

Both the Merkava and the Lavie, however, first must be used to stock the Israeli military's shelves. This will cut down on foreign sales potential for some years. Another Arab-Israeli war would slow future exports even more.

As Israel asserts its self-sufficiency by making its own weapons, it does so with the tremendous advantage of American cooperation. The Merkava, for instance , was developed only after the Carter administration allowed Israel to use $107 million in American military aid for the program and cancel an order for 175 American M-60 tanks. This was unprecedented use of American military credits for weapons development by a foreign power and typifies the ''special relationship'' Israel enjoys with the US.

The Merkava engine is produced by the American Teledyne Company. Israel's new Lavie fighter, heralded as the first jet fighter produced wholly in Israel, nonetheless will use Pratt & Whitney engines.

These ties to the US present something of a hindrance to Israel. In 1977, the Carter administration blocked the sale to Ecuador of 24 Kfir jets because they were powered by General Electric J-79 engines. The US objected to the transfer of this advanced technology to Ecuador. The Lavie's engines will be made under license in Israel, thus freeing it somewhat from US oversight.

There are times when Israel's role as pariah selling to pariahs can work in the interest of Washington. US military sales to Taiwan, for instance, increasingly are being complicated by mainland China's displeasure. Because Washington thinks in global terms, this obstacle is formidable. Israel does not have such constraints. Its foreign policy is normally geared to regional, not global, interests. It can sell to Taiwan without upsetting the superpower balance (and has sold millions of dollars worth of Gabriel missiles and light weapons there).

Likewise, with British suspicion of Argentina still high after the Falklands war, the US and European nations are under pressure to stem their weapons sales to Buenos Aires. Israel is less vulnerable to such pressure, and an early December trip to Buenos Aires by Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir was believed to be partly to talk about weapons sales.

But just as the US can say no to Israel due to the special nature of the relationship, so Britain, if it really objected to Israeli sales to Argentina, almost certainly could put pressure on Israel directly, or through Washington, to halt them.

And Israel may not always be able to deal so freely with other pariahs.

The Begin government's diplomatic drive to renew relations with black Africa may force Israel to rethink its relationship with Pretoria. Already Israel says it abides by the United Nations arms embargo against the white-supremacist state.

A recent report of China's interest in buying a quantity of Kfirs -a report denied by Israel - raises the possibility that Tel Aviv may one day find it in its interest to adjust its links with Taiwan.

In part, Israel's current high profile in the world arms trade comes about because Israel is seeking new markets to replace those it has been forced out of.

Through the late 1970s, Iran was Israel's biggest buyer. But the Iranian revolution changed that. Military analysts say Israeli arms are still making their way to the Khomeini regime, but the flow is greatly reduced: Iran is on the West's blacklist, the Khomeini regime is leery of taking arms from the occupier of Jerusalem, and Israel itself is unsure of the ultimate intentions of the Islamic militants in Tehran.

Israel's relationship with Nicaragua changed when the Somoza dictatorship was overthrown, and arms sales to Ethiopia ended when the Mengistu regime took power.

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