Jerusalem – The two largest suppliers to Georgia are the United States and France. Israel may not be Georgia’s main arms supplier, but the scope of defense deals between the two countries stands at $200 million.
However, security ties between Israel and Georgia have received a great deal of media attention, in part because of the capture, on film, of a Russian jet downing an Israeli-made drone in Georgian service, and the role that retired senior Israeli officers have played as advisers to the Georgian security forces.
The Soldiers Are Georgian, The Arms Israeli
The Georgian army may be incapable of bearing up against an army the size of Russia’s, but it certainly presents a challenge. Over the years, the security companies run by senior IDF officers, including Maj. Gen. Israel Ziv and Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch, have been training the Georgian army’s infantry battalions. These battalions use Israeli night vision equipment, arms, communications and intelligence equipment and over their heads constantly hover Israeli drones and aircraft upgraded by Israel.
Ronnie Milo, the former mayor of Tel Aviv, is also behind the deals with Georgia.
“The phenomenon of a small country standing up to Russian might is not their invention,” Mr. Milo said, refusing to comment on the performance of the arms he sold. “We faced that situation for many years, and no one wanted to help us because they were afraid of the Russians and of the Arabs.”
At the end of 2003, a group of young idealists, led by Mikhail Saakashvili, who was elected to the government and has a pro-Western policy, rose to power in Georgia. Mr. Saakashvili is interested in having his country join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which also led to the conflict with Russia. As part of his efforts to join NATO, Mr. Saakashvili expanded his army to approximately 26,000 soldiers and worked to turn it into a Western-style, sophisticated army. This led to an increase in security exports from Israel amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Approximately two years ago, Georgia drew up an “urgent shopping list” that included dozens of millions of bullets, pilotless aircraft, night-vision equipment, mortar shells, rockets and more. Fears of a Russian response closed many doors throughout the world, but as stated, the Israeli Defense Ministry decided to allow the security companies to sell to them.
With the mediation of Ronnie Milo and his brother Shlomo (a former director-general of Israel Military Industries), who represented Elbit Systems, Su-25 ground-attack fighters were upgraded and 18 Skylark mini-drones and five Hermes 450 unmanned aerial vehicles were sold.
However, Israel Military Industries’ main and most sensitive deal was the sale of Lynx mobile rocket systems. The rockets can strike within a range of dozens of miles.
At the end of 2007, Brig. Gen. Hirsch, one of the owners of the Defensive Shield company, arrived in Georgia in order to train infantry troops. Dozens of instructors arrived there in order to train infantry troops as part of the cooperation deal that was signed with the company that Brig. Gen. Hirsch owns.
After the scope of Israel’s involvement became clear to the Russians, they sent a letter to Israel Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni asking that arms supplies to Georgia be discontinued.
Georgian Defense Minister Went To High School In Israel
The Georgian defense minister, Davit Kezerashvili, 30, is a Jew who once lived in Israel. Mr. Kezerashvili was born in Georgia. As a boy, he immigrated to Israel, lived with his grandmother in Holon and even went to Kugel High School in the city.
His parents followed him to Israel. Two years later, he returned on his own to Tbilisi. His parents remained in Israel and returned to Georgia just four years ago.
Mr. Kezerashvili studied international relations at Tbilisi University. He served as the aid to Mikhail Saakashvili when the latter was appointed the head of Parliament. Mr. Kezerashvili managed to get himself appointed defense minister when Mr. Saakashvili became president.
Mr. Kezerashvili devoted a great deal of effort in preparing Georgia for a possible future conflict with Russia, and he was helped by Israeli security experts.
In an interview that was given by Defense Minister Kezerashvili’s father a year ago to the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot, he said that his son had a warm spot in his heart for Israel. “He has a lot of friends to this day in Israel, and he’s maintained good relations with them,” said the father.
Yakobashvilli: ‘Israel Ought To Be Proud Of Itself’
“The Israelis ought to be proud of the fact that Georgian soldiers received Israeli education and training and are fighting like I don’t know what,” said another Georgian cabinet minister, Temur Yakobashvili, in an interview with the Israeli media.
Mr. Yakobashvili is a Hebrew-speaking Jew. “Now we have a battle with great Russia,” he said, “and our hope is to receive assistance from the White House, because alone Georgia won’t be able to endure. It’s important that everywhere in the world people understand that what is happening in Georgia now is going to affect world order. This isn’t only Georgia’s business but the business of the entire region.”
One Georgian MP yesterday called not only for American help but also for Israel to help Georgia stop the Russian assault. Yesterday, a short while after the Georgian parliament declared a war situation, MP Lasha Zhvania said: “We won’t be able to stop the Russian aggression by military force only. We need help from the UN and from our friends as well, first and foremost the United States and Israel. Today it is a danger to Georgia; tomorrow it will be a danger to all the democratic countries in the region and in the entire world.”
Israel Will Try To Rescue 17 Jews Under Siege
In recent years, Georgia has become a popular destination among companies that market jeep tours or trips. Assessments speak of several hundred Israelis, tourists and businesspeople, who are currently in the country.
Orna Ben-Haim, who is in Georgia on a business trip, told the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv that tension is very much felt in the streets. “In all the open cafs, we can see worried people watching television,” she reports. “The horrific photographs reach every place and every home. On the roads, outside Tbilisi, we saw a lot of armed soldiers and all the roads leading from the capital to Gori were closed to civilians.
However, despite the geographic proximity between Tbilisi and Gori, it mostly feels like living in Tel Aviv during the Second Lebanon War.” Israel will try to rescue 17 elderly Jews under siege in the capital of southern Ossetia, Tskinvali.
“We are trying to reach those Jews and get them to the Russian border,” said an Israeli Foreign Ministry official involved in the rescue efforts. “The problem is that right now we are unable to reach them, but we are trying hard to locate them. These are elderly people with no means at their disposal.”
Georgia has several Jewish communities, including Gori, where approximately 220 Jews live. Since the war began, some of them left, aided by the Jewish Agency, though most stayed in the city.
“In a sense, we have become Israel,” said Mr. Isak Bridza, a Jew who lives in Gori, “but unlike Israel, where the population is prepared for this kind of situation, here no one was prepared.”
Mr. Shalveh Devarshvili succeeded in leaving Gori with his wife, sister and daughter. “We can’t tolerate the bombardments anymore,” he says. Besides the Jewish Agency, yesterday the Joint also helped to absorb 15 Jewish adults from Gori. The Native Liaison Bureau of the Jewish Agency for Israel is planning to send a special consul to Tbilisi who will deal with Jews who wish to move to Israel because of the fighting.
Israel Foreign Ministry: Halt Arms Sales To Georgia
According to the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, the Israel Foreign Ministry has recommended a complete halt to the sale of arms and any security-related equipment to Georgia in light of the recent fighting with Russian forces in the Caucasus. This would be a further tightening of an arms boycott on Tbilisi around a year after a decision had been made in Jerusalem to limit exports to Georgia only to defensive equipment.
Israel is concerned that Russia would choose to retaliate against Jerusalem for continued military support of Georgia by lifting restrictions on its arms transfers to Iran and Arab states.
“Israel needs to be very careful and sensitive these days,” a senior foreign ministry source told Haaretz. “The Russians are selling many arms to Iran and Syria and there is no need to offer them an excuse to sell even more advanced weapons.”
Israel is particularly interested in the transfer of advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia to Iran.
Profiles Of Israelis Helping The Georgia Defense Industries
* Maj. Gen. (res.) Yisrael Ziv, aged 61
Military Background: Served as the commander of the Paratroopers Brigade’s elite reconnaissance unit during the first Lebanon War. He was the commander of the Paratroopers Brigade and the commander of the Gaza Division between 2000 and 2005.
Current Employment: Mr. Ziv is the CEO of a security consulting firm.
In Georgia: Mr. Ziv has been active in the past number of years exporting weaponry, mainly to South America. He served as a security consultant in Georgia, often in conjunction with others.
* Roni Milo, aged 59
Background: A former MK, cabinet minister and mayor of Tel Aviv.
Current Employment: Mr. Milo is a businessman.
In Georgia: Mr. Milo has been working in Georgia with his brother Shlomo, a former IAF pilot and CEO of the Israel Military Industries. He served as a mediator for Elbit Systems and the military industries. Mr. Milo succeeded in promoting a number of relatively small business deals. He tried this past year to promote the sale of 200 Merkava tanks to Georgia, but the deal was prohibited by Israel.
* Brig. Gen. (res.) Gal Hirsch, aged 44.
Military Background: This leading officer was forced to retire from the IDF in the wake of the criticism he received for his performance during the Second Lebanon War as the commander of the Galilee Division.
Current Employment: Brig. Gen. Hirsch is one of the owners of Defensive Shield, a security consulting firm.
In Georgia: According to sources in Israel, Brig. Gen. Hirsch helped the Georgians establish elite units akin to elite Israeli units.
David Bedein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web site is www.IsraelBehindTheNews.com
©The Bulletin 2008