SHIR HEVER, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Shir Hever in Germany
A new film has just come out, The Lab. The film has already been shown in Israel and will soon be released in venues around the world.The Lab is a film about Israel’s arms industry and security industry and how it became one of the pillars of Israel’s economy. Yotam Feldman is an Israeli journalist and the director of The Lab.
YOTAM FELDMAN, FILMMAKER AND JOURNALIST: Hi
HEVER: So can you tell us how this film came to be?
FELDMAN: Yeah. The film began as I was working in Haaretz as an investigative journalist and I was writing quite frequently about issues concerning the relation between military operation and financial profit, about arms deals, about the national security industry. And I think at some point I got the conclusion that there is a much bigger story here that has to do with the Israeli economy, that has to do with the life of every one of us. And I’ve come to meet very unique characters, which I thought would be very interesting for a movie audience.
HEVER: You talk about two kinds of exports in this film. One of them is the arms exports, actual weapons. And the other is exporting training, of expertise, by Israeli former officers, who train other military forces, police, and so on. What is the Isreali specialization? What differentiates Israeli exports from exports from other countries?
FELDMAN: Yeah. I mean, first of all, although there are two kinds of expert in the film, actually there are more than that, ’cause on top of these, there is Homeland Security experts, which is not even counted in the national figures. I mean, the $7 billion Israel gets from defense experts is not included–HLS is not included, and fences and surveillance and many other measures which are also very successfully exported from Israel. I think the main product Israelis are selling, especially in the last decade, is experience. When customers–and I’ve seen it–from worldwide come to Israel or meet Israelis overseas, they’re not especially interested in Israeli engineering or the Israeli product. But the testing of the products, the experience is the main thing they are coming to buy. They want the missile that was shot in the last operation in Gaza or the rifle that was used in the last West Bank incursion. This is what they’re interested in.
HEVER: So this brings me to the next question. One of the features which come up a lot in your film is the issue of urban fighting, maybe the sort of expertise that they are talking about. But is there a connection between government policy in pursuing these conflicts, those attacks, and the ability of this industry to generate commerce, to generate trade through the weapon companies?
FELDMAN: I think the appropriate term is not so much urban fighting as asymmetric warfare. This is a term coined, actually, by an Israeli scholar, by Martin van Creveld, which identified this new kind of conflict between a regular army and irregular fighters. In Israel and in many other places, it is very focused on the urban terrain, actually, like in Gaza, like in the West Bank. But it can also occur in Lebanon and in very different terrains.
And to your question, yes, I think there is very strong connections in many ways. One is the fact that all these very big defense industries have–they invest a lot in market research, they invest a lot in selling their products to the Israeli army and understanding how to sell it. And, of course, once the army buys the product, it ends up using them. So this is one way to see it.
And the other is that in Israel the connection is very close. I mean, many of the politicians who will decide when will the next operation come into being are actually personally involved in this weapons trade industry and have personal or have people in their very close surroundings gaining from these operations.
HEVER: So the Israeli politicians you’ve interviewed, like the Israeli minister of defense, who later became the minister of industry, labor, and commerce, he was formerly a military officer, wasn’t he?
FELDMAN: Yes, yes, yes.
HEVER: And many of them are. So do you think that it reaches the level in which they think about the economic opportunities and the advantages that could be gained from the security industry even before they decide on government policy or launching an attack?
FELDMAN: Again, I don’t think my argument in the film is that it’s all about money and economic interest and that’s everything and, you know, the main reasons to go to operations in Gaza is greed or profit. It’s not really that way. There is ideology. There are other factors, of course, which have, probably, a heavier influence.
I do think it does play a part in the way the operations are managed in their length, in their duration, in the kinds of weapons which are used. There is a very strong influence, I think. And the other is the fact that now the Israeli economy is so much dependent on these operations. It’s 20 percent of the exports. It’s 150,000 families–not people–in Israel actually dependent on this industry. And if one day it will stop, if there will be no next operation in Gaza, so Israel will have some economic problems.
HEVER: I’d like to get to the ideological side of it that you mentioned. But before that, if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you a little bit more about the economic side. We see an interesting relation between the government and private companies. Some of the companies are owned by the government, and some are completely private, and they seem to be operating on a very high level of cooperation.
FELDMAN: Yes, yes, yes. This is [incompr.] first of all, the pillars of the Israeli defense industry are still nationalized. They are still the three biggest weapons factories, which is Rafael, IAI, and IMI, are state-owned. But still there is a very big and very flourishing private sector, private defense sector, which has, as you said, very close cooperation with the government, with the army. They pride themselves in the Israeli reserve system, which allows the same person which is developing the weapon and selling the weapon to actually be testing it when he’s doing reserve in the Israeli army. And we see the connection with politicians, which in many cases go to these industries themselves. And I think the strongest connection is with the Israeli army. I mean, Elbit, which is the most–it’s not the largest, but it’s the most profitable defense company in Israel, which is private, which is owned by Mickey Federmann, very close to Barak, to the defense minister, it recruits every year dozens of very high army officers to their company. And I think one of the main reasons they take them, besides their expertise and everything, is their current connections in the Israeli army and their ability to sell products to the army so they can later export them, they can later go to a foreign customer until it was tested in Israel by this.
HEVER: One of the things that come out in the film is the issue of hypocrisy. A former commander of Israel’s Southern Command, Yoav Galant, who commanded the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2008, 2009, says in your film that other governments on the one hand criticize Israeli aggression towards the Palestinians, but at the same time, they’re buying equipment and training from Israel. And you show in your film how representatives of so many countries come to Israel to receive such training. So would you say that the arms trade is one of the ways by which Israel also gains political support?
FELDMAN: Yeah. First of all, I agree 100 percent with Galant. I think the world is hypocritical. I mean, the same governments which are criticizing–Europe especially, which are criticizing Israel for the use of military force against civilians, for collateral damage or not collateral damage or whatever, are the same governments which are buying weapons from Israel, which are allowing Israel to produce new weapons and use new weapons in Gaza. In this point, he is 100 percent correct.
And, yeah, I do think that if we look at the last two years since Cast Lead, there is the world outrage against Israeli actions in Gaza, in Lebanon, in the West Bank is not as tough as it used to be. It’s much milder. And I think economic interests have a very central role in that.
HEVER: Getting back to the ideological aspect that you mentioned, one of the things that I can’t help but ask myself as I watch this film: why do these people agree to talk to you? You talk to them about sensitive issues, about killings, and they agree to give you interviews, they agree to talk to you.
FELDMAN: Yeah. I think–and this is a very important point to me–the people in the film are not cynical people, are not nihilist people. I think no one–maybe Barak, but Barak is not a character in the film. The main characters, which I interview, are people with a very consolidated moral worldview. They understand what they are doing, they understand why they are doing it, and they actually appreciated the chance, as long as it was a fair chance–and it was a fair chance–to tell the world, to tell Israelis what are they doing and why are they doing it. And they’ve seen the film. I don’t think they thought it–you know, it’s a promotional film for them or it’s a film glorifying them, and I wouldn’t have been comfortable in that way, but they thought it was fair. They thought it made their point well and they got the fair opportunity to explain themselves.
HEVER: And what do you think is their purpose in giving the interview? Who do they want to explain themselves to? What kind of target audiences are they trying to reach when they talk to you?
FELDMAN: I think mostly Israelis. I think–I mean, one of the most astounding aspects of my research is the absolute lack of public discussion about weapons. I mean, when you go to the U.S., when you go to Germany, you see every week or two journalistic investigations about weapons, movies about weapons. In Israel, you know, everyone’s there, and there’s nothing. No one talks about it. I think it is very mystified. I think there are many untrue myths about people in this field. And I think they actually wanted the chance to show what they do. I mean, in some cases it is painful. In some cases it is very hard for Israelis to watch. But it’s people. You know, it’s people. And they explain themselves.
HEVER: Thank you very much, Yotam, for joining us.