Following a new reminder in the Daily Telegraph that Israel had sold weapons to Argentina at the time of the Falklands War, and the repetition of the claim that Menachem Begin had done so to revenge the hanging of Dov Gruner by the British Mandatory regime in Palestine in 1947 (see below), this letter appeared:
The Falklands secret
SIR – However important the supply of Israeli weapons may have been to the Galtieri junta in the Falklands War, it was nothing to the boost Argentine capabilities would have been given, had another vendor – Britain – succeeded in concluding a massive arms sale just over a decade earlier.
The deal that Denis Healey as defence secretary pushed so hard to achieve (beyond the limits of legality), would have rendered victory for the Falklands Task Force impossible.
The package, put together in the mid-Sixties, would have supplied two Sea Dart frigates, nine Canberra bombers, two Oberon-class attack submarines, a nuclear reactor and, most significantly, given subsequent events, a dozen Harrier GR1 V/STOL fighter-bombers.
Had the Argentine navy possessed the latter aircraft, neither the Royal Navy nor the RAF could have closed Stanley airport to fast jet operations. Confronted with air strikes from two directions, the Task Force’s position would have been tactically untenable.
The deal was thwarted by pure chance. In 1967 a foot-and-mouth epidemic was triggered by a batch of Argentine lamb that infected livestock near Oswestry. Buenos Aires retaliated against the Ministry of Agriculture’s ban on Argentine meat imports by cancelling the arms contract.
Despite Healey’s efforts to strong-arm the Cabinet into breaking British and international health legislation, Harold Wilson was persuaded (by Fred Peart, the agriculture minister, and Sir Solly Zuckerman, the Cabinet scientific adviser) to uphold the ban.
As a result, although the sale of the Canberras went through and two Type 42 destroyers were eventually substituted for the frigates, the Task Force did not have to face aircraft as capable as its own, operating at close range rather than from the mainland.
An Argentine pilot, shot down by a Sea Harrier, later lamented that things would have been different had his own air force had an aircraft like that, little realising that the big secret of the Falklands War was that they very nearly did.
The Telegraph story by David Blair, Chief Foreign Correspondent reads, in part:
Israel sold weapons to Argentina at the height of the Falklands War in 1982, according to newly declassified Foreign Office files.
British diplomats cited evidence that Israel had supplied the Argentine military junta with arms that were used against the Task Force during the campaign to liberate the islands.Israeli military exports before the war included the Skyhawk jets that would later be used to bomb British warships, killing dozens of soldiers, sailors and marines. Four British warships were sunk by bombs dropped from Skyhawks, including RFA Sir Galahad, a troop carrier that was set ablaze while anchored in Bluff Cove, killing 48 sailors and soldiers. Simon Weston, the badly burned veteran, was among the survivors. Another four ships were damaged by Skyhawks.
A memorandum from C.W. Long, then head of the Near East and North Africa Department at the Foreign Office, states: “Israel was one of the few countries to supply Argentina with arms during the Falklands conflict and has continued to do so.”
The document is filed alongside a copy of an article from a specialist journal stating that Israel had sold Skyhawk jets to Argentina’s air force before the Falklands War.
In his book, Operation Israel, the Argentine journalist Hernan Dobry writes that Israel provided the spare parts and long range fuel tanks needed to keep these aircraft in action against the Task Force. When British diplomats confronted their Israeli counterparts with evidence of arms sales, they were met with blanket denials.
The official history of the Falklands War, written by Lawrence Freedman, states: “British troops entering Port Stanley at the end of the war came across Israeli equipment.”
Menachem Begin, then Israel’s prime minister, had begun his career as commander of the Irgun, the Jewish underground which fought the British in Palestine in the 1940s.
A fellow Irgun fighter, Dov Gruner, was hanged by the British in 1947. In Operation Israel, Mr Dobry suggests Begin saw arming Galtieri as a way of exacting revenge against Britain. After authorising the sale of weapons during the Falklands War, Begin reportedly said: “Dov up there is going to be happy with the decision.”
In response, the following letter was sent but seems not to have been published:
Your story on declassified Foreign Office files relating to Israel having sold weapons to Argentina at height of Falklands War (Aug. 24) also includes an unsubstantiated ("reportedly said") reference to Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin supposedly seeking to exact revenge for the hanging by British Mandatory authorities in 1947 of an Irgun fighter.
Israel, like France, an ally of England, indeed sold weapons to Argentina, and had done so for some time prior to the Falklands hostilities, a policy initiated by a previous Israel government, one not affiliated to the Irgun three decades earlier. Incidentally, many would think France's Exocet did much more damage to British forces. Some think Israel did sell arms at the suggestion of the United States so as to avoid Argentina turning to Russia. Britain, it should be taken into the historical perspective, had for many years sold weapons to Israel's enemies among Arab states and also provided them with training.
Prime Minister Begin's response to this incident was that Israel had signed contracts and would not renounce its obligations. In an interview on May 10, 1982, Israel's Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir replied to a question on the Falkland crisis and said, "Ever since the crisis broke out, therefore, we have not gone through with any new arms sales to Argentina. As you know, Israel…has sold weapons to Argentina. Now we have no interest in getting involved in that crisis."
Yisrael MedadDirector, Information & Educational ResourcesMenachem Begin Heritage Center6, Nahon StreetJerusalem 94110ISRAEL