Yossi Melman reports in Maariv (after the Maariv story and this post was published, Haaretz also reported on this) that the Israeli drone manufacturer, Aeronautics, sought a contract to sell military drones to Azerbaijan. Though the Orbiter 1K drone the Azeris contemplated buying had been tested in battle, in order to seal the deal, they demanded to see the “suicide” drone attack an Armenian army position. The government even planned to broadcast video of the attack on national TV. But there was a wrinkle in the plan. The drone operators who were to orchestrate the flight and attack refused to carry it out.
Aeronautics executives, desperate to seal the lucrative deal, pressured the pilots, warning them they would torpedo an important commercial sale. But the drone operators remained firm in their refusal. The executives were forced to arm, fly and conduct the entire mission themselves. Though they attempted to attack the Armenians, the flight failed and no one was injured. Though not for lack of trying.
One of the two pilots who refused to carry out orders quit the company and the second is in the process of leaving.
Melman says that a complaint has been filed with the Israeli defense ministry (he doesn’t say by whom) because the export license granted to the company explicitly prohibits Israeli personnel taking part in any military action between hostile parties. In other words, Israel just sells them the weapons to kill each other. It doesn’t do the killing directly. This way it can keep accusations of military intervention at arm’s length. The ministry doesn’t permit either direct or indirect intervention of this kind. Though of course selling the parties these weapons is a form of intervention.
This is a delicate matter both for the Israeli arms exporter and for the defense ministry since Azerbaijan is a critical Israeli ally in the region. At a joint press conference, the country’s president boasted that he’d bought $5-billion worth of Israeli weapons to fuel his ongoing war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. An even more important element in the relationship for the Israelis is that Azerbaijan is perfectly situated geographically for spying on its neighbor, Iran. Israel spies are active inside the country, as are Iranian spies. The country has also leased an air base to the Israeli military to serve as a refueling station for Israeli aircraft should they attack Iran. Israel also carries out clandestine spying missions inside Iran using Israeli drones based in Azerbaijan.
As my recent piece published at Middle East Eye shows, Israel does intervene directly in the wars of client states. In this case it was on behalf of Libyan strongman, Gen. Khalifa Haftar. In the Azerbaijan case, the intervention was perhaps not sanctioned directly (and therefore problematic) by the defense ministry. But the fact that Aeronautics senior executives were willing to do it in order to seal the deal shows that rules and regulations were made to be broken as far as Israeli arms exports are concerned.