Knesset members from nearly every political party were set to propose a new law on Wednesday to halt arms sales to “gross human rights violators” around the world.
Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg has been leading the charge on that front, with help from activist attorney Eitay Mack and Professor Yair Auron of Israel’s Open University. Their proposals, however, have rarely gained traction, as Zandberg’s left-wing party is in the opposition, putting a majority out of reach.
To help raise this issue out of the mire of partisan politics, freshman MK Yehudah Glick of the Likud party stepped into the fray, bringing with him another 16 members of Knesset.
The proposal was written by Mack, but is based on a similar American law, Zandberg told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. It is an amendment to the existing law that would require the Defense Ministry to reject export licenses for Israeli companies selling technology or services to human rights violators.
Though the legislation is originally hers, Zandberg allowed Glick to take charge — and credit — for the renewed initiative. His name deliberately appears above hers on the proposal. “It’s not just alphabetical,” she said.
Behind Glick’s push, there’s a self-described “concerned citizen” named Eli Joseph, who joined the fight to halt arms sales to human rights violators over a year ago.
Through frequent calls to Knesset members and government officials — and the occasional protest on their front lawns — Joseph helped provide support for Zandberg, Mack and Auron from across the aisle.
Joseph identifies as a right-winger and lives in the West Bank. He gained some recognition in the early 2000s for leading an effort to get American-Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard released from prison early.
He is not tied to any particular organization in his work on the issue. “I’ve been working a lot by myself,” Joseph said.
He’s spoken with Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan and Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, both from the right-wing Jewish Home party.
Joseph said he convinced Ariel to vote in favor of Zandberg’s previous proposal on the issue to get it through the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, but could not get the Jewish Home minister to break ranks and vote for it in the plenary.
“I wanted him to go further, but he didn’t. That’s why I’ve been protesting a lot in Kfar Adumim,” Joseph said, referring to the West Bank settlement where Ariel lives.
To Joseph, Glick and Zandberg, Israel’s tacit support for human rights violators through arms sales shouldn’t be a partisan issue.
“I know that most people, who have a heart — and I think most people do have a heart — know that this is something wrong,” Joseph said, with a distinct London accent.
Glick, a polarizing figure in Israeli politics due to his campaign for the right to Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, also tried to distance the topic from partisan politics.
“I try to deal with things not based on the people, but based on the issue,” Glick told The Times of Israel over the phone on Tuesday. “This is an issue of the Jewish people. We have to be sure that nothing coming from Israel has anything to do with breaking basic human rights on a very severe level.
“There is no reason we should be arming people who are killing women and children.”
For decades, Israel has been accused of selling weapons and services to human rights violators around the world, including to Rwanda during the genocide there in the 1990s, though the extent has been largely unknown as those transactions have largely remain sealed — due to national security concerns, the government maintains — despite attempts by Mack to have them opened to the public.
Most recently, Israel has been accused of supplying South Sudan with advanced weaponry and training, despite a near-universal arms embargo in light of a bloody civil war there, in which both sides have been accused of human rights violations, including systemic rape, ethnic cleansing, and the recruitment of child soldiers.
Israel has since promised not to sell “attack” weapons to South Sudan, though the United Nations found in January that it had provided the African nation with surveillance technology.
Israel’s current law on defense exports requires “considerations regarding the end-user or the end-use,” but does not expressly forbid arms sales to human rights violators.
To address that, Zandberg and Meretz party leader Zehava Galon proposed new legislation in May 2015 that would require the Defense Ministry to reject an arms manufacturer’s export license to countries that commit “gross human rights violations,” including torture, inhumane punishment, kidnapping and “rape for belonging to a political, ethnic or religious group,” Zandberg told The Times of Israel last year.
‘I thought it was something basic that we could take care of’
The proposal to be presented Wednesday is virtually identical to the one put forth by Zandberg last year.
According to an advance copy of the bill seen by to The Times of Israel, it will be sponsored by 18 members of Knesset from the Likud, Meretz, Yesh Atid, Zionist Union, Jewish Home, Joint List and Kulanu parties.
“I only hope all the parties of the Knesset members who signed [the proposal] will also vote for it,” Zandberg said.
The only parties without a single Knesset member sponsoring the bill are the plenary’s ultra-Orthodox parties — United Torah Judaism and Shas — and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party.
Glick, who is best known for his activism related to the Temple Mount, took an interest in the issue a few months ago, before he joined the Knesset in May, when defense minister Moshe Ya’alon resigned and gave up his seat.
The newly minted MK set to work on the issue “as soon as I got into the Knesset,” he said. “I studied this as a topic. I thought it was something basic that we could take care of.”
Calling the effort to stem defense exports to human rights violators “basic” may sound naive, as attempts in the past to even reveal the extent of arms sales have fallen flat in both the Knesset and the Supreme Court.
However, the new attempt may be more likely to yield results due to its across-the-aisle support, Zandberg said.
“The bill is balanced and very proportional,” she said. It’s not “radical”; nor does it severely restrict the defense industry from selling its wares to most countries.
With the freshman Likud MK on board, it now also has backing from “what some may call the far left and the far right,” Joseph said, referring to the reputation of Zandberg’s Meretz party as very liberal and Glick’s Temple Mount activism, which is generally associated with the religious right.
But along with the “extremes,” the proposal also has support from the Knesset’s “top generals,” Glick noted.
“I signed [Likud MK] Avi Dichter; I signed [Yesh Atid MK] Yaakov Peri; I signed [Yesh Atid MK] Elazar Stern; I signed [Zionist Union MK] Eyal Ben-Reuven,” he said.
“Those are four major generals in the Knesset. I think that shows something. These are people who understand what [the Israel Defense Forces’] values are all about, these are people who understand what Israeli values and Jewish values are all about,” Glick added.
(Though Stern and Ben-Reuven did serve as generals in the IDF, Dichter and Peri were in fact heads of Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, but did not have extended army careers.)
Joining those former high-ranking, and distinctly middle-of-the-road defense officials are Joint List MK Dov Henin; Meretz MKs Michal Rozin and Ilan Gilon; Yesh Atid MKs Meir Cohen and Yael German; Zionist Union MK Yael Cohen-Paran; Jewish Home MK Moti Yogev; Likud MKs Avraham Neguise, Miki Zohar, Oren Hazan and Yaron Mazuz; and Kulanu MKs Roy Folkman and Meirav Ben-Ari.
Even if it passes this week in a preliminary reading, if it is to be signed into law the bill must win approval from the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, and go back to the plenary for first, second and third readings.
“We’re only just beginning,” Glick said.