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Argentina: Military Support From Israel in 1982

Newly declassified files from the National Archives in Kew reveal that Israel supplied significant weaponry including strike aircraft to the Argentine Junta in the run-up to, and during, the 1982 conflict. 

The files show that Israel provided, via Peru, air-to-air missiles, missile radar alert systems, and large capacity fuel tanks for the Argentine Skyhawk aircraft, giving them extra defensive capability and air time over the Falkland Islands, during the conflict. Israel also sold a large number of reconditioned Nesher (“Dagger2) fighter jets from the 1970s, the Israeli version of the Dassault Mirage 5 multi-role aircraft, to the Argentines during the period of the Junta (1976-83) together with spare parts and other military materiel. Israeli arms exports to Argentina in this period are estimated to have been around US$1 billion. 

This activity was well known to the UK authorities at the time but officials were pessimistic that the Israelis could be persuaded to stop. UK-Israeli relations were strained over the first Lebanon war and Israel’s Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, was no Anglophile. Begin had led the Zionist militant group, Irgun, during the British Mandate in Palestine and had proclaimed a revolt against the British in 1944. The Irgun were responsible for various terrorist acts, including the attack on the King David hotel, killing 91 people. Begin also nursed a real hatred against the British for the execution of his close friend and Irgun collaborator, Dov Gruner, in 1947. Despite a personal intervention from the UK Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, Begin was also prepared to sell signals intelligence equipment for use on Argentine spy planes. 

Israel’s relationship with Argentina has always been complex. Argentina has a sizeable Jewish community (with some 180,000 emigrants, the seventh largest Jewish community in the world and second largest in South America). It has survived periods of peaceful co-existence, particularly in times of open immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but also periods of intense anti-Semitism. Under President Peron, Argentina provided a safe haven to fleeing Nazis and stopped further Jewish immigration; yet Peron allowed the establishment of diplomatic relations with the new state of Israel in 1949. During the “dirty war” under the Argentine Junta in 1976-83, many Jews were arrested and “disappeared” but although Israel arranged for many Jewish families to escape, the realpolitik of the day meant that Israel’s wider interests lay in supporting the anti-communist regime of the Junta. 

Since the collapse of the Junta in 1983, Argentina’s attitude towards its Jewish communities has relaxed. Legislation against racism and anti-Semitism was passed in 1988 and President Menem in 1989 released the files on Argentina’s role in harbouring Nazi war criminals. But in 1992, the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires was bombed , killing 32 people, and in 1994 a car bomb attack on the Jewish community centre (AMIA) in Buenos Aires killed 85 and injured over 300 people. Responsibility has never been established but it has been asserted that the AMIA attack was carried out by a Hezbollah suicide bomber with Iranian backing. The Argentine prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, investigating the case, was found shot dead in suspicious but unresolved circumstances in 2015. 

Argentina has been keen to update its airforce: with the decommissioning of it few remaining French Mirage aircraft last year and others similarly on the way out, Argentina is predicted to have no serviceable combat aircraft by 2018. The new administration under President Macri has contracted to buy 24 T6/C Texan training aircraft from US Beechcraft, promised by President Obama when he visited Argentina in March, for counter-drugs and border control work. UK policy has been to try to prevent Argentina from gaining any military capacity that could be used in an attack on the Falkland Islands – and it was influential in preventing the sale of Israeli Kfir C2 aircraft last year because UK design components were involved. But other countries are undoubtedly queuing up to fill the void. 

Times have changed and Argentine relations with Israel will be very different from those applying in 1982. But Argentina may well still be benefiting from the technological expertise gained from Israeli know-how at that time.

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