German Chancellor Olaf Scholz meets with IAI officials at the Berlin Air Show on June 5, 2024. (IAI)

BERLIN AIR SHOW — France’s last-minute decision to bar Israeli firms from an upcoming defense exhibition was a “surprise” and “unpleasant,” according to a senior executive at Israel Aerospace Industries, among the first to publicly address the French government’s controversial move.

“It was a surprise because it’s associated with the wrong narrative, that tells the opposite story from the reality,” Yehuda Lahav, executive vice president of marketing at IAI told Breaking Defense here. “On the seventh of October, we were the victim. We were attacked and slaughtered by terrorist organisations, and we have the right to defend ourselves.”

Despite the setback, Lahav was convinced that non-participation at Eurosatory will not have an impact on IAI’s business. “It was a surprise, it was unpleasant, I don’t like it, but as a company that has such a big scale of choice with other Israeli industries… We have 30 exhibitions around the world every year, so one exhibition that we won’t participate in won’t do anything to effect the business.”

IAI will not seek to talk with France about the issue further. “It’s a done deal, we will cancel everything,” he explained.

Nearly 70 Israeli firms, including IAI, had been on the Eurosatory exhibitor’s list the day the ban came down on May 31. None are currently listed. Lahav said IAI was in the process of checking whether the company’s insurance would cover the loss of investment in the show floorspace, a pricey square-footage endeavor for defense contractors from around the globe.

Lahav added that customers who were expecting to speak with the firm at Eurosatory instead approached them here at the Berlin Air Show.

Last week the French government said it was revoking invitations to Israeli firms for the biannual Eurosatory conference, one of the biggest defense expos in Europe which is held in Paris, over the Israeli government’s conduct in Gaza. The show is scheduled to take place June 17-21.

“At the request of the French authorities, Israeli companies will not be present at Eurosatory,”  the French Ministry of Armed Forces said in a statement provided to Breaking Defense on May 31. The statement said “conditions” were not right to welcome the Israeli companies while French President Emmanuel Macron was calling for an end to Israeli operations in Rafah.

The Ministry of Armed Forces and Eurosatory’s organizers did not respond to Breaking Defense’s questions last week about potential compensation for the Israeli firms. Breaking Defense has requested comment from several other Israeli firms who were committed to Eurosatory, but most either have not responded or declined to comment.

Rafael said in a statement it is “not participating at Eurosatory due to the official decision made and we will observe this decision.”

“We are engaging and supporting our global customer base and our industry partners just as we have over the past decades,” the company said. “RAFAEL has a wide range of marketing and business activities, we continue to participate in events, conferences and exhibitions to support the defense of our friends and allies.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz poses with senior Israel Aerospace Industrie (IAI) officials in front of an Arrow missile at ILA Berlin Air Show 2024 on June 5, 2024. (ILA handout)

Meanwhile, perhaps an indication of a European schism, Israeli firms like IAI and Rafael have been welcomed here at the Berlin Air Show. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited the conference Wednesday and stopped by IAI’s stand, where he met senior IAI officials and a top military official in Israel’s research directorate.

“We are very pleased to have hosted the Chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz, at our booth at the ILA Berlin Air Show,” IAI said on its Facebook page, under a photo of Scholz shaking hands with IAI Chairman Amir Peretz. The post said that Peretz “noted that the cooperation with Germany is both courageous and important, security-wise and politically.”

In November, Germany finalized a deal with IAI for the Arrow 3 air defense system, a multi-billion-dollar deal that IAI says is the “largest defense deal in Israel’s history.”

Breaking Defense’s Seth Frantzman and Lee Ferran contributed to this report.