Israeli Minister's Gift Gaffe Leads to Awkward Standoff With Russians

Israeli minister 'gifted' Russian PM Medvedev a drone which wasn't his

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Originally appeared at: Al Monitor

Two incidents reeking of corruption have left Israel outraged over the past week. The first revolves around the acquisition of three new Dolphin submarines from Germany. Since the purchase was initiated and rammed through by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it has come out that his personal attorney David Shimron, a member of the prime minister’s family, also represents the German shipbuilding firm in Israel.

The other issue is the investigation of a former senior member of the National Security Council who was reportedly on course to be appointed head of the council and national security adviser to the prime minister. This person, whose name is under a gag order for the moment, is suspected of accepting bribes and other benefits from a German businessman after vast reserves of natural gas were discovered off Israel’s coast and during the ensuing fight to develop them.

While all of this was happening, another, much smaller incident was also unfolding. While this last incident sounds quite droll, it is also somewhat worrying. What is known in Israel as the “drone incident” happened Nov. 10, during an important visit to the country by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

During the visit, Israel and Russia signed a deal worth billions of shekels in the fields of dairy production, water technology and food preservation. Described as “strategic” by top Israeli officials, one component of the deal has Israel supplying Russia with the technology, means and factories to develop the Russian dairy market.

During his visit, Medvedev stopped by the Volcani Agricultural Research Institute, an official government institution that conducts the lion’s share of Israel’s agricultural research. Israel happens to be one of the world's leading countries in this field, and Medvedev expressed his admiration and awe at everything he was shown. The highlight came when he was given the controls for a sophisticated drone, used by the institution’s scientists to conduct agricultural research. The Russian prime minister was visibly amazed to discover that he could actually maneuver the drone in the air. Suddenly, Minister of Agriculture Uri Ariel (HaBayit HaYehudi), who accompanied Medvedev, surprised everyone by turning to the translator and saying, “Tell him it’s his.” The Russians didn’t fully understand at first, but the Israeli minister clarified what he meant: “It is a gift from the minister of agriculture.” He was giving the drone to Medvedev as a gift. All the prime minister had to do was to let Ariel know where to send it.

What happened next could have been an SNL comedy sketch. The staff of the Volcani Institute was horrified by the gesture, which the minister of agriculture pulled out of nowhere at their expense. The institute only has two of the drones, each of which cost an estimated 200,000 shekels ($52,000), not including the controls, which cost another 100,000 shekels ($26,000), the training of technicians and so on. The loss of just one of the drones would paralyze the institute’s agricultural research. Nevertheless, when the director general of the Ministry of Agriculture was asked whether the drone could be given to the Russians as a gift, he responded, “Of course,” without even checking. Having no say in the matter, the institute hoped that the Russians would not take this bizarre gift seriously and move on.

But that hope was short-lived. The next day, two burly representatives from the Russian Embassy arrived at the Volcani Institute to demand their drone. After a series of feverish consultations, it was finally given to them, and they took it back to the embassy. Then, however, it was discovered that the controls, truly sophisticated equipment, were intentionally left at the institute instead of given to the Russians with the aircraft. “We have no intention of handing the control system to the Russians too,” a source in the Volcani Institute told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. This source explained that the gift itself was illegal and that it violated the facility's regulations and procedures, adding, “If we hand them the controls, we’d be grounding the second drone too. They share a joint control system. If that happens, there will be no more agricultural research at the Volcani Institute.”

The incident snowballed rapidly. The Russians discovered that they did not receive the controls and made a point of demanding them. The institute refused. Suspicion followed that the drone contained advanced technology, some of which was not proprietary to Israel but American and European, technology that Israel cannot transfer to a third party without first obtaining permission. Israel had gotten itself into trouble in the past for a similar incident (the 2005 “harpy incident” in which Israel provided drones to China).

A source in the Volcani Institute told Al-Monitor that an American thermal camera with sensitive technology is fixed to the drone and Israel is not allowed to sell it to a third party without US authorization. Ariel denied the possibility, presenting documents from his ministry according to which the drone was given to the Russians "naked," without any technology installed. With that, the Defense Ministry sighed in relief. At the same time, however, it was also discovered that this perfunctory gift to the Russians violated other official procedures. The gift was given with a serial number and license from Israel's aviation authority. In other words, it is considered an Israeli aircraft and its transfer to a third country constitutes a “defense export.” Such a gift can only be given in accordance to Israel’s strict regulations, after receiving the approval of numerous bodies.

Despite all of this, Russia is still holding on to the drone and demanding its control system. It is worth remembering that this is the same Russia whose aircraft now fill Syrian airspace along Israel’s northern border, which has an aircraft carrier anchored nearby and whose ships cruise near Israel’s territorial waters. What is Israel to do now?

While just about everyone has been laughing at how the minister of agriculture dragged Israel into this imbroglio, there have also been some serious concerns expressed. Ariel is a member of the HaBayit HaYehudi party and a leader of the settlers in Judea and Samaria. Sticking to the law, regulations and proper procedures was never one of his strong points. He is known as a mover and shaker who gets things done his way. After decades in the settler movement, he has rounded his fair share of corners. Left paying the price for the minister’s impulsive decisions are the staff of the Volcani Institute, the field of scientific agricultural research in Israel and the sanctity of proper government procedures.

That the Russians never considered foregoing their pride and waiving their claim to this modest gift throughout the crisis worries many in Israel. Even more disconcerting, no one in Israel even considered approaching the Russians and to explain the situation and all the damage that this gift could do to Israeli research. As one senior Israeli official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “When the Russian bear falls asleep outside your home, you try not to wake it up.”

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