Let me get this one out of the way straight away: I would very much like Israel to ship air defence systems (and other lethal weaponry) to Ukraine, much in the same way I would like other countries to keep doing so and increase both volume and complexity of their weapons packages.
However, at the same time I don’t think that necessarily reflect on whether Israel is a reliable supplier of arms and other critical equipment to the Finnish Defence Forces.
Let’s start with why the question suddenly occupies the mind of a number of Finnish defence-minded people. Finnish-Israeli arms trade stretches back decades, and while during the Cold War much of the trade went from Finland to Israel, with the growth of the Israeli arms industry the trade flows have largely been reversed during the last few decades. Both countries see eye to eye on a number of important issues when it comes to national defence, including the heavy reliance on national conscription, doctrinal similarities emphasising superior training, tactics, and high tempo to take and keep the initiative, as well as a down-to-earth attitude which emphasise things that work (and keep working in field conditions) rather than new and flashy solutions. Both countries have also been rather happy to keep a somewhat low profile when it comes to which capabilities are found and where they are acquired from. This is however changing with an increased openness on the part of the FDF when it comes to strategic signalling as well as a more open policy on the part of the Israelis (partly due to the need for marketing by the companies themselves, partly due to the Israeli state opening up the traditionally very strict secrecy operational systems and units).
Two key acquisitions have thrown the spotlight on Israel as a supplier among Finnish defence analysts: the choice of the Gabriel 5 as the PTO 2020 anti-ship missile and narrowing the ITSUKO high-altitude ground-based air defence program down to two Israeli systems. With both of these programs being of strategic importance for the FDF as a whole, the question of whether Israel can be counted on as a reliable supplier is certainly a valid one.
The controversy over Ukraine stems from a number of issues. Ukraine has already in the years leading up to the February invasion expressed interest in certain Israeli systems, mainly armed drones and the Iron Dome rocket-defence system. These were turned down, as were requests by the Baltic states to ship SPIKE anti-tank missiles to Ukraine in much the same way they had been shipping US-made Javelins. Following the outbreak of hostilities, there has been renewed requests both from third parties wanting to ship Israeli made systems from their own arsenals to Ukraine, as well as directly from Ukraine. The last round was caused by the Russian terror bombings which heavily feature Iranian-made systems. This led to an official Ukrainian request for ground-based air defence systems covering Iron Beam, Iron Dome, Barak-8, Patriot, David’s Sling, and Arrow, which was again turned down by the Israeli MoD.
This has turned up the volume with accusations flying that Israel has sided with Putin against the democratic world, and while the questions of security of supply is a relevant one, that statement is plainly false.
Israeli aid has so far included helmets, flak vests, 100+ tons of humanitarian supplies, a field hospital, and there’s rumours about (limited) assistance with intelligence from both the state and private companies. In addition Israel has voted against Russia in UNGA Resolution ES-11/1 as well as in the follow-up ES-11/2, ES-11/3, and ES-11/4. Yes, I would very much like to see direct military aid as well, but the Israeli aid package is in line with what e.g. Japan is doing, and I do not see a big debate on whether Japan is a traitor to the free world, despite Tokyo also having some interesting air defence (and other) systems that would come in handy for Ukraine.
It deserve to be kept in mind that the turn in arms policy vis-a-vis Ukraine happened very quickly in the West – a year ago artillery and anti-tank weaponry was largely unthinkable despite a number of people calling for policy reversals either across the board or at least domestically (a position which I quite honestly can’t understand Finland having taken back then, but that’s a topic for another discussion). We still have a less-than-impressive showing in certain supposed powerhouses in Europe, and it’s easy to lose sight of just how Eurocentric the change in fact has been. Besides the European countries, it really is only the US, Canada, and Australia which have pitched in and supplied heavier military equipment. This is despite the fact that many of the ex-Soviet systems employed by Ukraine are in fact found in significant numbers also outside those nations.
Behind the scenes, Israeli refusal to go head-to-head with Russia most likely stems from two factors with a third thrown in for good measure with the advent of Iranian systems on the battlefield. The first is the significant number of Russian jews (as well as Russian non-jews granted citizenship due to marriage) living in Israel. Exactly how many there are depends on how you count as Soviet jews, Russian jews, jews that used to live in Russia, and so forth, aren’t always synonyms. Obviously what they have in common is that for some reason or the other they have chosen to leave Russia for Israel, which means they might or might not have warmer feelings towards Russia than your average Israeli. However, in a country that is currently headed for its seventh election in ten years, potentially upsetting approximately one million citizens is a risk few parties are willing to take. That’s not to say there’s one million who supports Russia, as evident by Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai (born in Jerusalem to parents who had emigrated from Russia and Poland respectively) who went on Twitter and broke ranks to call for arms deliveries, but it certainly puts a bit of a break on things (at least until after the upcoming elections).
A second and possibly even more important issue has been the role of Russia in Syria. Israel and Russia has reached an understanding when it comes to operations in Syria, under which Israel has been able to strike Iranian arms shipments to Syria and Hezbollah without much interference from Russia. The importance of this agreement can be discussed, as it is questionable to what extent Russia would have been able to stop Israel even if they wanted to (in particular following reports of the withdrawal of at least some long-range systems from Syria to cover losses in Ukraine), but it certainly has made Israeli air strikes more convenient.
With Iran appearing as a major supplier of long-range strike systems to Russia – a sentence I did not foresee ever writing – Israeli interests are again at a crossroad. On one hand, Russia cooperating more closely with a country Israel sees as an existential threat could be seen to support Israeli aid to Ukraine. At the same time, the question is what kind of aid and systems could be going from Russia to Iran? Especially in light of the ongoing JCPOA renegotiation (aka the Iran nuclear deal) which Israel is afraid will end poorly from their point of view, trying to ensure any kind of political leverage vis-a-vis Moscow to be able to stop arms transfers to Iran – which might be unlikely as long as the war in Ukraine rages on, but on the other hand Iran is unlikely to send ballistic missiles to Russia just from pure generosity – in particular with regards to e.g. the long-rumoured Su-35 deal is likely a top priority in Jerusalem. That however only works if Israel believes it has enough of a leverage to actually be able to convince Russia to come around to the Israeli point of view, which is far from certain given the Kremlin seem ever more desperate for every passing month (and let’s just say the number of agreements kept by Russia after they no longer seem to serve their intermediate interests is somewhere between ‘none’ and ‘hen’s teeth’). As such, I would not be overly surprised to see an Israeli reversal of its position on arms deliveries to Ukraine within the next twelve months. That might not be the answer Ukraine is hoping for, and as noted I personally don’t believe it to be good policy, but the fact is it isn’t any different from that of most countries.
However, leaving aside the question of proper Ukraine policy for a while (we’ll let the realists and constructivists fight it out on Twitter), and getting back to the question of whether Israel is a reliable arms supplier to Finland, I’m inclined to say they are. Crucially, there’s a significant difference between initiating new deals and follow-on sales/support to existing customers. It is notable that Israeli support to e.g. Azerbaijan was not cut off even when Azerbaijan started the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War against Armenia – which after all was Russia’s treaty-ally (speaking of making deals with Russia…). The morality of that decision can be discussed, but it is in line with Israeli arms trade policy which always has placed a premium on ensuring the customer is satisfied, as when you aren’t overly open about your deals, you can’t rely on glossy paper for marketing. In the particular case of Finland, as mentioned there is also the long ties and understanding issues such as having strong and unpredictable (read: aggressive) neighbours who might or might not want to erase you from the map. The Finnish deals in recent years also hold significant value for reference purposes and as part of their reputation as being able to compete with the best in a country known for valuing capability. With Israeli arms exports being worth 11.3 Bn USD last year (that’s an HX-program each year for my Finnish readers) and making up almost 7% of the total exports of the country, it’s a reputation they can ill afford to lose.
Of course, we are strongly moving into the hypothetical. An argument can certainly be made that there’s nothing guaranteeing that if Finland gets dragged into a conflict there isn’t an Israeli election coming up at the same time as there is a perfect storm with regards to Russian and Israeli regional interests in the Middle East. Still, you can also make an argument to the contrary that the reputational hit taken now and Israel’s slowness in changing policy could actually make deliveries to Finland more likely as the export decision has been made before any crisis, and that even if the worst would come, Finland is known to strive to always procure wartime stocks of munitions and spares, making the impact of any feet-dragging in follow-on supplies smaller. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
Perhaps the most important realisation all around during the past eight months is how difficult arms procurement really can be in wartime regardless of where the supplier sits. German behaviour with regards to heavy weapons, the possibility of a Trump 2.0 in the White House, the artisanal production runs of expensive weapons from many suppliers, limited stocks for many countries, and overall policy choices by many countries both in Europe and elsewhere has again raised lessons that really should have been learned in the 40’s – namely that buying weapons when everyone is gearing up for war is difficult. Policy changes can also come quickly in either direction (the controversial Israeli policy was Finnish policy as well right up to 24 February, when it changed literally overnight), raising the question which country really can be seen as a reliable supplier? Inside NATO the situation should hopefully be better than outside, but as mentioned the size of the production runs and ability to scale up production when facing a crisis is unfortunately not where one would want it to be. At the same time, domestic production isn’t as viable as it used to be due to the cost of modern weapons development and the general trend of globally distributed production chains.
There isn’t an easy (and cheap) answer to these question, but my personal opinion is that I do not believe that buying Israeli represent a measurably higher risk compared to most European or US suppliers. The risk might be different, but I believe recent events have shown that risk-free options are few and far between.