Spain said Friday it requested clarification from Israel after its agriculture minister decided to give visiting Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev a Spanish-made drone which may contain sensitive technology.
Uri Ariel of the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home party apparently overstepped government regulations on gifts by giving the only scientific research helicopter of its kind in the country to Medvedev during his visit earlier this month.
Medvedev accepted the drone made by Spanish company Alpha Unmanned Systems, which was worth around 50,000 euros ($53,000) and may also have contained technology not meant to be shared. The helicopter is designed to carry thermal and infrared cameras capable of providing complex images of the actual uptake of water and water-borne materials such as pesticides by crops and trees which have been given uniform irrigation.
A spokesman for Spain’s foreign ministry said Alpha sold the drone to Israel’s Volcani Agricultural Research Organization, “with an export license in which this center is listed as the final user.”
The license, according to the spokesman, also “stipulates that it is expressly forbidden to cede the equipment to third parties without the prior consent of Spanish authorities.”
“Spain’s government was not asked for this authorization,” he said, adding the foreign ministry in Madrid had sent an official note to Israel’s embassy in Madrid “seeking clarifications on the issue.”
The minister’s impulse to hand over the NIS 200,000 piece of equipment — purchased by Volcani with research funds that did not come from the ministry — came during a tour of agricultural technology at the institute, a source from the institute said.
While Medvedev played with the controls of the helicopter, Ariel asked his ministry’s director general Shlomo Ben Eliyahu for permission to gift the equipment, which Ben Eliyahu gave on the spot.
The surprised translator asked whether he should relay the conversation to Medvedev. Ben Eliyahu said yes.
On a recording by Boris Stern of Channel 9, broadcast by Army Radio, one can hear the translator saying that the minister said: “It’s a present for you, tell us where you want it, tell us and we’ll take it for you.”
Medvedev replies, “It’s a great present, thanks,” and then turns to his entourage and jokes that he already owns an unmanned combat plane.
Volcani representatives tried unsuccessfully to delay the course of events without upsetting the visit, but at the end of the tour, two members of the Russian delegation took the helicopter to their plane, along with various accessories.
It is unclear whether Medvedev received the drone with or without its remote control or thermal camera. Haaretz newspaper reported that Volcani staff had refused to give the components away.
According to government regulations issued by Israel’s accountant general, gifts of up to NIS 300 can be made to visitors from abroad. In extraordinary circumstances, a minister or deputy minister can make a gift worth up to NIS 700, with permission from the ministry’s director general.
Ariel’s ministry issued a statement acknowledging that the drone was given to Medvedev, but said the gift had been approved by “the relevant professional officials.”
The ministry said it would quickly purchase a new drone to replace it — though some pointed out that this would have to come at taxpayers’ expense.
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel called for Ariel to pay for the drone from his own pocket, while opposition politicians slammed the gift.
Nachman Shai of the opposition Zionist Union said the minister from the far-right Jewish Home party had been duped into handing “knowledge and technologies to the wrong countries.”
MK Stav Shaffir, also from the Zionist Union, called for Ariel’s resignation.
Israel’s embassy in Madrid was not immediately available for comment.