- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2008

Israel was considering last weekend whether to suspend all further military shipments to embattled Georgia, fearing possible retaliation from Russia, which is on good terms with two of the Jewish state’s archenemies in the region.

At the same time, approximately 200 Georgian-Israelis protested outside the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, urging the United States to take stronger action against Russia’s military intervention in Georgia and the breakaway enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The large Georgian-Jewish community in Israel was not the only group with a dog in the fight, however, as the war between Georgia and Russia appeared to be intensifying despite intensive mediation by U.S. and European diplomats.

Israel has been involved in training and arming the Georgian military for a number of years, and the fear within Israel’s military establishment was that Russia, which already supplies arms to both Syria and Iran, could well decide to increase the quantity and quality of those supplies.

Israel’s immediate concern is that Russia will proceed with the sale of the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Iran, which would help Iran defend its nuclear installations from aerial attack.

This would be particularly problematic if Israel decides to carry out a pre-emptive raid on Iran’s nuclear facilities as it has been threatening to do for months.

Israel’s military complex has supplied Georgia with about $200 million worth of equipment since 2000. This has comprised rockets, night-vision communications and intelligence surveillance equipment, including Skylark minidrones and Hermes 450 unmanned aerial vehicles. Israel also upgraded Georgia’s Su-25 ground-attack fighters.

A Russian jet shot down an Israeli-made drone being operated by the Georgians earlier this year.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ronnie Milo and his brother Shlomo, a former director-general of Israel Military Industries, were key players in the Georgian arms sales. Senior Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers, including Maj. Gen. Israel Ziv and Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch, also were directly involved in training Georgian army infantry battalions.

Gen. Hirsch, who was a senior commander in the 2006 Lebanon war, served in an advisory capacity.

Meanwhile, other Israeli trainers are trying to glean from news reports on the movements of the Georgian army whether their trainees succeeded in internalizing Israeli military techniques.

Two key Georgian ministers are Jewish and fluent in Hebrew. Georgian Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili, 30, immigrated to the country as a boy but eventually returned to Georgia.

Georgian Minister of Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili praised the IDF for its role in training Georgian troops and said during an interview with Israeli Army Radio that Israel should be pleased with its military might.

“Israel should be proud of its military, which trained Georgian soldiers,” Mr. Yakobashvili, in fluent Hebrew, told Israel’s Army Radio shortly after the fighting erupted.

He added that this training provided Georgia with the know-how needed to defend itself against Russian forces as he explained how a small group of Georgian soldiers had been able to wipe out an entire Russian military division despite the inferiority of Georgia’s defense forces when compared to Russia’s.

“We killed 60 Russian soldiers,” Mr. Yakobashvili said. “The Russians have lost more than 50 tanks, and we have shot down 11 of their planes. They have sustained enormous damage in terms of manpower.”

However, Israeli ties to Georgia go further than the arms trade and military training business. Another Israeli interest in Georgia has revolved around the rich oil and gas deposits in the region.

Jerusalem is keen to see the Caspian oil and gas pipelines reach the Turkish terminal port of Ceyhan rather than the Russian network after Russia turned down a previous Israeli request.

To this end, intense negotiations are under way among Israel, Turkey, Georgia, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan for pipelines to reach Turkey and onward to Israel’s oil terminal at Ashkelon and to its Red Sea port of Eilat. From there, supertankers can carry the gas and oil to the Far East through the Indian Ocean.

Finally, Israel works hard to increase the number of Jews immigrating to the country in an effort to protect itself against a demographic time bomb in which Israeli-Arabs and Palestinians in East Jerusalem, with their higher birth rate, are seen as a possible threat to Jewish majority.

To this end, the Jewish Agency, which arranges immigration, has organized flights into Georgia to evacuate Jews trapped in the cities as fighting intensifies. Indeed, Israel’s national El Al airline was practically the only airline to fly into Georgia’s capital Tbilisi after other flights were suspended or grounded.

Several hundred Jews were subsequently evacuated to Israel as new immigrants.

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