I’ve just read the full Der Spiegel expose on Germany’s arms deal with Israel which will eventually bring nine nuke-armed submarines into its naval arsenal. The report is so rich that it’s worth delving into it for a second blog post.
In 2008, Angela Merkel, on her first visit to Israel made a remarkable and quite alarming statement:
Here of all places I want to explicitly stress that every German Government and every German Chancellor before me has shouldered Germany’s special historical responsibility for Israel’s security. This historical responsibility is reason of state for my country. For me as German Chancellor, therefore, Israel’s security will never be open to negotiation.
I have never heard of one country seeing as part of its very existence the responsibility for the security of another. Isn’t it hard enough to be responsible for one’s own nation’s security without also taking responsibility for another’s? I can certainly understand Germany having a sense of moral responsibility for Israel given the sins of the Holocaust. But to the extent of offering Israel weapons of mass destruction capable of incinerating the Middle East?
And does anyone really think that if Israel stands on the brink of annihilation that Germany will land troops and defend Jerusalem? No, more likely Germany will give Israel the means to annihilate even wider swaths of the region should Israel face such a threat. The Germans won’t put anything on the line other than their own weapons industry, which stands to benefit from the weapons trade. How do you think it will look to potential German customers to see pictures of those sleek, beautiful Dolphins sitting in the docks of Kiel and knowing they’ll be patrolling the waters of the Mediterranean protecting Israel from enemies real and imagined. If Israel wants it, many customers will reason, it must be damn good. Let’s get ourselves some.
Der Spiegel notes that Germany’s leaders have been so eager to offer Israel advanced weaponry that they not only violated the country’s arms export laws, in one case a defense minister actually drove up to the Israeli consulate and hand-delivered a new armor-piercing grenade wrapped in a trench coat with the words:
Here’s one for the boys in Tel Aviv!
You can’t get any more generous than that! Franz Josef Strauss, the minister mentioned above, even stole from German stockpiles and reported the munitions as stolen in order to protect himself. Among the items “lost” or “loaned” to Israel were:
…Sikorsky helicopters, Noratlas transport aircraft, rebuilt M-48 tanks, anti-aircraft guns, howitzers and anti-tank guided missiles.
And who do you think was the Israeli who facilitated (some might say “greased”) this relationship? David Ben Gurion’s chief political fixer, Shimon Peres. It began with secret conversations at the German defense minister’s home in 1957 and by the following year arms exports to Israel began in earnest. By 1967, when such weapons played a critical role in enabling Israel to achieve military superiority over the Arab states, it would become clear how critical this relationship was to Israel’s victory. In 1973, when Israel faced the possibility of losing the October War, then Chancellor Willy Brandt violated German export law by sending emergency shipments of arms to Israel. He justified his actions by saying he was responding to an emergency that was “above the law.” Sound familiar?
As early as 1961, Strauss was holding secret meetings with Peres and Ben Gurion during which they discussed the “Samson Option,” Israel’s plan to get a nuclear weapon. The effort was masked by an Israeli request to design a nuclear reactor in order to desalinate water and “make the desert bloom.”
Israel faced an economic crisis in those years and funding was limited for such an expensive project. Ben Gurion likely saw the Germans as their Daddy Warbucks. Then German Chancellor Adenauer approved a nearly $1-billion loan which was never officially audited and which financed Israel’s bomb. Thanks to German generosity, Israel had a crude version of a nuclear weapon in place by 1967. It’s purpose was to stave off a possible catastrophic Israeli defeat in the unlikely event such a thing should happen as a result of the War.
Since then, Israel’s nuclear arsenal has become much more than a defensive umbrella. It has allowed Israel to pursue a reckless, belligerent approach toward its neighbors. It has allowed Israel to make the Middle East an even more dangerous, unstable place. All this would not have been possible without German funding. In an age when the world is trying to restrain the proliferation of nuclear weapons and prevent countries from getting nukes, Germany sponsored Israel for membership in the club of nuclear states.
As we rally forces to try to prevent Iran from securing a nuclear weapon, as we condemn any nation which contributed in any way toward Iran’s nuclear capabilities, Germany should be ashamed of the role it played in promoting Israeli nuclear proliferation. That is, unless we wish to say that Israel’s nukes are “good nukes,” while Iran’s (should it ever get them) are “bad nukes.” That would be quite an act of noblesse oblige to see things that way, but not above Israel’s sense of entitlement and cultural superiority to the “wild-eyed” Islamists running Iran.
As early as the 1980s, Israel began to contemplate use of submarines to provide “strategic depth,” a euphemism for second strike capability, or more accurately massive overkill. If any Israeli enemy had the temerity to attack, Israel wanted the certainty that its retaliatory capacity would be preserved, protected and massively lethal. That’s where German submarines came into play. As early as 1989, Germany approved the first of the Dolphins to Israel. Germany got over its squeamishness about offering Israel a potential weapon of mass destruction by agreeing to finance only the vessel itself, but not the weapons systems.
Who would finance the rest? In 1991, Israel faced weeks of intermittent bombardment by Iraqi Scud missiles. The Israelis discovered that a number of the electronic components were built by German companies. There was also talk that chemical weapons Iraq had used against Iran were also produced by Germany. Israeli diplomats played the Holocaust card masterfully and blackmailed Germany into almost fully financing the purchase of the first two Dolphins. The country signed an arms deal worth nearly $1.5-billion and financed two-thirds of it. Germany’s largesse and generosity continues to this day.
But the submarines and the wheeling and dealing that brought them to Israel remains shrouded behind a veil of secrecy. Israel wanted there to be no substantive debate in either country about them. Until now it has succeeded admirably. But perhaps due to the increasing intransigence of the Netanyahu government and Israel’s increasing belligerence toward its neighbors, this may be changing, if not among the political élite, then among intellectuals and activists like Gunter Grass, whose infamous poem decried the Dolphin deal.
In discussing the design of the submarines, Der Spiegel notes the special features Israel demanded. Among them, wider than conventional torpedo tubes which U.S. analysts surmise are intended for Israel’s version of a nuclear-armed cruise missile (called the Popeye). The hydraulic ejection system would be far better at launching nuclear weapons through water and into air than the conventional compressed water firing version.
Former German officials involved with negotiations about the vessels knew implicitly that Israel intended to arm them with nukes. But they politely side-stepped these issues by avoiding them altogether. Whenever they did approach the issue they said that Germany was not building boats that were intended for nuclear weapons. But of course, what the Israelis did with them after they received them would be Israel’s business.
If this reminds you of the “good Germans” who “didn’t know” what their Nazi leaders were doing to the Jews, well you could be excused for seeing a parallel.
In yesterday’s post, I discussed the likelihood that Israel would use nuclear weapons against an enemy. I noted that it had prepared weapons for potential use in the 1967 War. But I did not know that it did the same at the beginning of the 1973 War when Israel’s position seemed extremely grave. And during the 1991 Iraq War, U.S. intelligence detected that Israel had activated its nuclear force in case Saddam had armed his Scuds with chemical weapons. So you can see that the threshold for use of nuclear weapons may be entirely different for a western country and for Israel. And presuming that Israel would only use its nukes as an absolute last resort (the “Samson Option” mentioned earlier) may be entirely wrong.
If Israel does attack Iran and use the Dolphins to launch cruise missiles against Iranian targets, there will be mud on many faces in Germany and a whole lot of explaining to be done. I wouldn’t want to be in Merkel’s shoes then.
A former high-ranking German defense ministry official has some sound advice for her:
“True friendship,” he believes, “requires the German chancellor to stay Netanyahu’s arm and prevent him from resorting to an armed attack [on Iran]. Germany’s obligation to protect Israel includes protecting the country from embarking on suicidal adventures.”
When Angela Merkel negotiated for Israel’s sixth Dolphin she attached conditions of a sort to the deal. Israel would release tax money intended for the PA, it would halt settlement activity in the West Bank, and allow construction of a German-financed sewage treatment plant in Gaza to resume. Yet strangely, she didn’t incorporate these conditions in any formal agreement and though the sub deal has been signed Israel fulfilled only one of the three conditions releasing the tax money, which wasn’t legally Israel’s to begin with.
It’s a question of too little too late. Germany preferred to sell weapons to Israel and look the other way at any unfortunate results. This works well until Israel unleashes the Big One. Then the chickens will come home to roost. With any luck for her, she’ll be long out of office and her successors will have to deal with the mess she helped make.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.