Israel´s Deployment of Nuclear Missiles on Subs from Germany (DER SPIEGEL) 06/04/12)
DER SPIEGEL Articles-Index-Top
Many have wondered for years about the exact capabilities of the
submarines Germany exports to Israel. Now, experts in Germany and
Israel have confirmed that nuclear-tipped missiles have been deployed
on the vessels. And the German government has long known about it. By
The pride of the Israeli navy is rocking gently in the swells of the
Mediterranean, with the silhouette of the Carmel mountain range
reflected on the water´s surface. To reach the Tekumah, you have to
walk across a wooden jetty at the pier in the port of Haifa, and then
climb into a tunnel shaft leading to the submarine´s interior. The
navy officer in charge of visitors, a brawny man in his 40s with his
eyes hidden behind a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses, bounces down the
steps. When he reaches the lower deck, he turns around and
says: "Welcome on board the Tekumah. Welcome to my toy."
He pushes back a bolt and opens the refrigerator, revealing zucchini,
a pallet of yoghurt cups and a two-liter bottle of low-calorie cola.
The Tekumah has just returned from a secret mission in the early
The navy officer, whose name the military censorship office wants to
keep secret, leads the visitors past a pair of bunks and along a
steel frame. The air smells stale, not unlike the air in the living
room of an apartment occupied solely by men. At the middle of the
ship, the corridor widens and merges into a command center, with work
stations grouped around a periscope. The officer stands still and
points to a row of monitors, with signs bearing the names of German
electronics giant Siemens and Atlas, a Bremen-based electronics
company, screwed to the wall next to them.
The "Combat Information Center," as the Israelis call the command
center, is the heart of the submarine, the place where all
information comes together and all the operations are led. The ship
is controlled from two leather chairs. It looks as if it could be in
the cockpit of a small aircraft. A display lit up in red shows that
the vessel´s keel is currently located 7.15 meters (23.45 feet) below
"This was all built in Germany, according to Israeli specifications,"
the navy officer says,"and so were the weapons systems." The Tekuma,
57 meters long and 7 meters wide, is a showpiece of precision
engineering, painted in blue and made in Germany. To be more precise,
it is a piece of precision engineering made in Germany that is
suitable for equipping with nuclear weapons.
No Room for Doubt
Deep in their interiors, on decks 2 and 3, the submarines contain a
secret that even in Israel is only known to a few insiders: nuclear
warheads, small enough to be mounted on a cruise missile, but
explosive enough to execute a nuclear strike that would cause
devastating results. This secret is considered one of the best kept
in modern military history. Anyone who speaks openly about it in
Israel runs the risk of being sentenced to a lengthy prison term.
Research SPIEGEL has conducted in Germany, Israel and the United
States, among current and past government ministers, military
officials, defense engineers and intelligence agents, no longer
leaves any room for doubt: With the help of German maritime
technology, Israel has managed to create for itself a floating
nuclear weapon arsenal: submarines equipped with nuclear capability.
Foreign journalists have never boarded one of the combat vessels
before. In an unaccustomed display of openness, senior politicians
and military officials with the Jewish state were, however, now
willing to talk about the importance of German-Israeli military
cooperation and Germany´s role, albeit usually under the condition of
anonymity. "In the end, it´s very simple," says Israeli Defense
Minister Ehud Barak. "Germany is helping to defend Israel´s security.
The Germans can be proud of the fact that they have secured the
existence of the State of Israel for many years to come."
On the other hand, any research that did take place in Israel was
subject to censorship. Quotes by Israelis, as well as the
photographer´s pictures, had to be submitted to the military.
Questions about Israel´s nuclear capability, whether on land or on
water, were taboo. And decks 2 and 3, where the weapons are kept,
remained off-limits to the visitors.
In Germany, the government´s military assistance for Israel´s
submarine program has been controversial for about 25 years, a topic
of discussion for the media and the parliament. Chancellor Angela
Merkel fears the kind of public debate that German Nobel literature
laureate Günter Grass recently reignited with a poem critical of
Israel. Merkel insists on secrecy and doesn´t want the details of the
deal to be made public. To this day, the German government is
sticking to its position that it does not know anything about an
Israeli nuclear weapons program.
´Purposes of Nuclear Capability´
But now, former top German officials have admitted to the nuclear
dimension for the first time. "I assumed from the very beginning that
the submarines were supposed to be nuclear-capable," says Hans Rühle,
the head of the planning staff at the German Defense Ministry in the
late 1980s. Lothar Rühl, a former state secretary in the Defense
Ministry, says that he never doubted that "Israel stationed nuclear
weapons on the ships." And Wolfgang Ruppelt, the director of arms
procurement at the Defense Ministry during the key phase, admits that
it was immediately clear to him that the Israelis wanted the
ships "as carriers for weapons of the sort that a small country like
Israel cannot station on land." Top German officials speaking under
the protection of anonymity were even more forthcoming. "From the
beginning, the boats were primarily used for the purposes of nuclear
capability," says one ministry official with knowledge of the matter.
Insiders say that the Israeli defense technology company Rafael built
the missiles for the nuclear weapons option. Apparently it involves a
further development of cruise missiles of the Popeye Turbo SLCM type,
which are supposed to have a range of around 1,500 kilometers (940
miles) and which could reach Iran with a warhead weighing up to 200
kilograms (440 pounds). The nuclear payload comes from the Negev
Desert, where Israel has operated a reactor and an underground
plutonium separation plant in Dimona since the 1960s. The question of
how developed the Israeli cruise missiles are is a matter of debate.
Their development is a complex project, and the missiles´ only public
manifestation was a single test that the Israelis conducted off the
coast of Sri Lanka.
The submarines are the military response to the threat in a
region "where there is no mercy for the weak," Defense Minister Ehud
Barak says. They are an insurance policy against the Israelis´
fundamental fear that "the Arabs could slaughter us tomorrow," as
David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the State of Israel, once said. "We
shall never again be led as lambs to the slaughter," was the lesson
Ben-Gurion and others drew from Auschwitz.
Armed with nuclear weapons, the submarines are a signal to any enemy
that the Jewish state itself would not be totally defenseless in the
event of a nuclear attack, but could strike back with the ultimate
weapon of retaliation. The submarines are "a way of guaranteeing that
the enemy will not be tempted to strike pre-emptively with non-
conventional weapons and get away scot-free," as Israeli Admiral
Avraham Botzer puts it.
Questions of Global Political Responsibility
In this version of tit-for-tat, known as nuclear second-strike
capability, hundreds of thousands of dead are avenged with an equally
large number of casualties. It is a strategy the United States and
Russia practiced during the Cold War by constantly keeping part of
its nuclear arsenal ready on submarines. For Israel, a country about
the size of the German state of Hesse, which could be wiped out with
a nuclear strike, safeguarding this threat potential is vital to its
very existence. At the same time, the nuclear arsenal causes
countries like Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia to regard Israel´s
nuclear capacity with fear and envy and consider building their own
This makes the question of its global political responsibility all
the more relevant for Germany. Should Germany, the country of the
perpetrators, be allowed to assist Israel, the land of the victims,
in the development of a nuclear weapons arsenal capable of
extinguishing hundreds of thousands of human lives?
Is Berlin recklessly promoting an arms race in the Middle East? Or
should Germany, as its historic obligation stemming from the crimes
of the Nazis, assume a responsibility that has become "part of
Germany´s reason of state," as Chancellor Merkel said in a speech to
the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, in March 2008? "It means that
for me, as a German chancellor, Israel´s security is never
negotiable," Merkel told the lawmakers.
The perils of such unconditional solidarity were addressed by
Germany´s new president, Joachim Gauck, during his first official
visit to Jerusalem last Tuesday: "I don´t want to imagine every
scenario that could get the chancellor in tremendous trouble, when it
comes to politically implementing her statement that Israel´s
security is part of Germany´s reason of state."
The German government has always pursued an unwritten rule on its
Israel policy, which has already lasted half a century and survived
all changes of administrations, and that former Chancellor Gerhard
Schröder summarized in 2002 when he said: "I want to be very clear:
Israel receives what it needs to maintain its security."
Part 2: Franz-Josef Strauss and the Beginnings of Illegal Arms
Those who subscribe to this logic are often prepared to violate
Germany´s arms export laws. Ever since the era of Konrad Adenauer,
the country´s first postwar leader, German chancellors have pushed
through various military deals with Israel without parliamentary
approval, kept the Federal Security Council in the dark or, as then
Defense Minister Franz-Josef Strauss, a member of the conservative
Christian Social Union (CSU), did, personally dropped off explosive
equipment. That was what happened in an incident in the early 1960s,
when Strauss drove up to the Israeli mission in Cologne in a sedan
car and handed an object wrapped in a coat to a Mossad liaison
officer, saying it was "for the boys in Tel Aviv." It was a new model
of an armor-piercing grenade.
Arms cooperation was a delicate issue under every chancellor. During
the Cold War, Bonn feared that it could lose the Arab world to East
Germany if it openly aligned itself with Israel. Later on, Germany
was consumed by fears over Arab oil, the lubricant of the German
Cooperating with Germany also had the potential to be politically
explosive for the various Israeli administrations. Whether and in
what form the Jewish state should accept Germany´s help was a matter
of controversy for the Israeli public. The later Prime Minister
Menachem Begin, for example, who had lost much of his family in the
Holocaust, could only see Germany as the "land of the murderers." To
this day, financial assistance for Israel is in most cases referred
to as "reparations."
Cooperation on defense matters was all the more problematic. It began
during the era of Franz-Josef Strauss, who recognized early on that
aid for Israel wasn´t just a moral imperative, but was also the
result of pragmatic political necessity. No one could help the new
Germany acquire international respect more effectively than the
survivors of the Holocaust.
In December 1957, Strauss met with a small Israeli delegation for a
discussion at his home near Rosenheim in Bavaria. The most prominent
member of the Israeli group was the man who, in the following
decades, would become the key figure in Israel´s arms deals with
Germany, as well as the father of the Israeli atomic bomb: Shimon
Peres, who would later become Israel´s prime minister and is the
current Israeli president today, at the age of 88.
No Clear Basis
It is now known that the arms shipments began by no later than 1958.
The German defense minister even had arms and equipment secretly
removed from Germany military stockpiles and then reported to the
police as stolen.
Many of the shipments reached Israel via indirect routes and were
declared as "loans." The equipment included Sikorsky helicopters,
Noratlas transport aircraft, rebuilt M-48 tanks, anti-aircraft guns,
howitzers and anti-tank guided missiles.
There was "no clear legal or budgetary basis" for the shipments," a
German official admitted in an internal document at the time. But
Adenauer backed his defense minister, and in 1967 it became clear how
correct he was in making this assessment, when Israel preempted an
attack by its neighbors and achieved a brilliant victory in the Six-
Day War. From then on, Strauss´s friend Peres consistently reminded
his fellow Israelis not to forget "what helped us achieve that
The fact that the German security guarantee was not a question of
partisan politics became evident six years later, when Social
Democrat Willy Brandt headed the government in Bonn -- and Israel was
on the verge of defeat in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Although Germany
was officially uninvolved in the war, the chancellor personally
approved arms shipments to Israel, as Brandt biographer Peter
Merseburger reported. As those involved recall today, Brandt´s
decision was a "violation of the law" that Brandt´s speechwriter,
Klaus Harpprecht, sought to justify by attributing the chancellor´s
actions to a so-called emergency beyond law. The chancellor
apparently saw it as an "overriding obligation of the head of the
German government" to rescue the country created by survivors of the
DID THE GERMAN GOVERNMENT FINANCE THE ISRAELI NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROGRAM?
In the 1960s, Israel´s interests had moved past conventional arms.
Ben-Gurion had entrusted Peres with a highly sensitive project:
Operation Samson, named after the Biblical figure who is supposed to
have lived at the time when the Israelites were being oppressed by
the Philistines. Samson was believed to be invincible, but he was
also seen as a destructive figure. The goal of the operation was to
build an atomic bomb. The Israelis told their allies that they needed
cheap nuclear energy for seawater desalination, and that they planned
to use the water to make the Negev Desert fertile.
The German government was also left in the dark at first -- with
Strauss being the likely exception. The CSU politician was apparently
brought into the loop in 1961. This is suggested by a memo dated June
12, 1961, classified as "top secret," which Strauss dictated after a
meeting in Paris with Peres and Ben-Gurion, in which he wrote: "Ben-
Gurion spoke about the production of nuclear weapons."
One can speculate on the reasons that Ben-Gurion, a Polish-born
Israeli social democrat, chose to include the Bavarian conservative
Strauss in his plans. There are indications that the Israeli
government hoped to receive financial assistance for Operation Samson.
Israel was cash-strapped at the time, with the construction of the
bomb consuming enormous sums of money. This led Ben-Gurion to
negotiate in great secrecy with Adenauer over a loan worth billions.
According to the German negotiation records, which the federal
government has now released in response to a request by SPIEGEL, Ben-
Gurion wanted to use the loan for an infrastructure project in the
Negev Desert. There was also talk of a "sea water desalination plant."
No Reason for Concern
Plants for a civilian desalination plant operated with nuclear power
did in fact exist, and the development of the Negev was also one of
the largest projects in Israel´s brief history. When Rainer Barzel,
the conservatives´ parliamentary floor leader, inquired about the
project in Jerusalem, the Israelis explained that obtaining water
through desalination was an "epochal task." An official who
accompanied Barzel noted that the Israelis had said that "the
necessary nuclear power would be monitored internationally and could
not be used for military purposes, and that we had no reason to be
But a desalination plant operated with nuclear power was never built,
and it remains unclear what exactly happened with the total of 630
million deutsche marks that Germany gave the Israelis in the period
until 1965. The payments were processed by the Frankfurt-based
Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (Reconstruction Credit Institute). The
head of the organization said in internal discussions that the use of
the funds was "never audited." "Everything seems to suggest that the
Israeli bomb was financed also with German money," says Avner Cohen,
an Israeli historian at the Monterey Institute of International
Studies in California who studies nuclear weapons.
Finally, in 1967, Israel had probably built its first nuclear weapon.
The Israeli government dismissed questions about its nuclear arsenal
with a standard response that stems from Peres: "We will not
introduce nuclear weapons to the region, and certainly we will not be
the first." This deliberately vague statement is still the Israeli
government´s official position today.
When dealing with their German allies, however, Israeli politicians
used language that hardly concealed the truth. When the legendary
former Defense Minister Moshe Dayan visited Bonn in the fall of 1977,
he told then Chancellor Helmut Schmidt about neighboring Egypt´s
fear "that Israel might use nuclear weapons." Dayan said that he
understood the Egyptians´ worries, and pointed out that in his
opinion the use of the bomb against the Aswan dam would
have "devastating consequences." He didn´t even deny the existence of
a nuclear weapon.
Part 3: First Submarines Are Secretly Assembled in England
A country that has the bomb is also likely to search for a safe place
to store it and a safe launching platform -- a submarine, for example.
In the 1970s, Brandt and Schmidt were the first German chancellors to
be confronted with the Israelis´ determination to obtain submarines.
Three vessels were to be built in Great Britain, using plans drawn up
by the German company Industriekontor Lübeck (IKL).
But an export permit was needed to send the documents out of the
country. To get around this, IKL agreed with the German Defense
Ministry that the drawings would be completed on the letterhead of a
British shipyard and flown on a British plane to the British town of
Barrow-in-Furness, where the submarines were assembled.
Assuring Israel´s security was no longer the only objective of the
German-Israeli arms cooperation, which had since become a lucrative
business for West German industry. In 1977, the last of the first
three submarines arrived in Haifa. At the time, nobody was thinking
about nuclear second-strike capability. It was not until the early
1980s, when more and more Israeli officers were returning from US
military academies and raving about American submarines, that a
discussion began about modernizing the Israeli navy -- and about the
A power struggle was raging in the Israeli military at the time. Two
planning teams were developing different strategies for the country´s
navy. One group advocated new, larger Sa´ar 4 missile boats, while
the other group wanted Israel to buy submarines instead. Israel
was "a small island, where 97 percent of all goods arrive via water,"
said Ami Ayalon, the deputy commander of the navy at the time, who
would later become head of the Israeli domestic intelligence agency,
Even then it was becoming apparent, according to Ayalon, "that in the
Middle East things were heading toward nuclear weapons," especially
in Iraq. The fact that the Arab states were seriously interested in
building the bomb changed Israel´s defense doctrine, he says. "A
submarine can be used as a tactical weapon for various missions, but
at the center of our discussions in the 1980s was the question of
whether the navy was to receive an additional task known as strategic
depth," says Ayalon. "Purchasing the submarines was the country´s
most important strategic decision."
Strategic depth. Or nuclear second-strike capability.
At the end of the debate, the navy specified as its requirement nine
corvettes and three submarines. It was "a megalomaniacal demand," as
Ayalon, who would later rise to become commander-in-chief of the
navy, admits today. But the navy´s strategists had hopes of a
Alternatively, they were hoping for a rich beneficiary who would be
willing to give Israel a few submarines.
KOHL AND RABIN TURN ISRAEL INTO A MODERN SUBMARINE POWER
The two men who finally catapulted Israel into the circle of modern
submarine powers were Helmut Kohl and Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin´s father
had fought in World War II as a volunteer in the Jewish Legion of the
British army, and Rabin himself led the Israeli army to victory, as
its chief of staff, in the 1967 Six-Day War. In 1984, having served
one term as prime minister in the mid-1960s, he moved to the cabinet,
becoming the defense minister.
Rabin knew that the German government in Bonn had introduced
new "political principles" for arms exports in 1982. According to the
new policy, arms shipments could "not contribute to an increase in
existing tensions." This malleable wording made possible the delivery
of submarines to Israel, especially in combination with a famous
remark once made by former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich
Genscher: "Anything that floats is OK" -- because governments
generally do not use boats to oppress demonstrators or opposition
After World War II, the Allies had initially forbidden Germany from
building large submarines. As a result, the chief supplier to the
German navy, Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft AG (HDW), located in the
northern port city of Kiel, had shifted its focus to small,
maneuverable boats that could also operate in the Baltic and North
Seas. The Israelis were interested in ships that could navigate in
similarly shallow waters, such as those along the Lebanese coast,
where they have to be able to lie at periscope depth, listen in on
radio communications and compare the sounds of ship´s propellers with
an onboard database. The Israelis obtained bids from the United
States, Great Britain and the Netherlands, but "the German boats were
the best," says an Israeli who was involved in the decision.
A few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the German
government, practically unnoticed by the general public, gave the
green light for the construction of two "Dolphin"-class submarines,
with an option for a third vessel.
But the strategic deal of the century almost fell through. Although
the Germans had agreed to pay part of the costs, this explicitly
excluded the weapons systems -- the Americans were supposed to also
pay a share. But in the meantime, the Israelis had voted a new
government into office that was bitterly divided over the investments.
´An Inconceivable Scenario´
In particular Moshe Arens, who was appointed defense minister in
1990, fought to stop the agreement -- with success. On Nov. 30, 1990,
the Israelis notified the shipyard in Kiel that it wished to withdraw
from the contract.
Was the dream of nuclear second-strike capability lost? By no means.
In January 1991, the US air force attacked Iraq, and then Iraqi
dictator Saddam Hussein reacted by firing modified Scud missiles at
Tel Aviv and Haifa. The bombardment lasted almost six weeks. Gas
masks, some of which came from Germany, were distributed to
households. "It was an inconceivable scenario," recalls Ehud Barak,
the current Israeli defense minister. During those days, Jewish
immigrants from Russia arrived, "and we had to hand them gas masks at
the airport to protect them against rockets that the Iraqis had built
with the help of the Russians and the Germans."
A few days after the Scud missile bombardment began, a German
military official requested a meeting at the Chancellery, presented a
secret report and emptied the contents of a bag onto a table. He
spread out dozens of electronic parts, components of a control system
and the percussion fuse of the modified Scud missiles. They had one
thing in common: They were made in Germany. Without German technology
there would have been no Scuds, and without Scuds no dead Israelis.
Once again, Germany bore some of the responsibility, and that was
also the message that Hanan Alon, a senior Israeli Defense Ministry
official, brought to Kohl during a visit to Bonn shortly after the
war began. "It would be unpleasant if it came out, through the media,
that Germany helped Iraq to make poison gas, and then supplied us
with the equipment against it, Mr. Chancellor," Alon said. According
to Israeli officials, Alon also issued an open threat, saying: "You
are certainly aware that the words gas and Germany don´t sound very
Part 4: The Shipyards of Kiel
The Germans got the message. "Israel-Germany-gas" would sound like
a "horrible triad" in the rest of the world, then Foreign Minister
Genscher warned in an internal memo.
On Jan. 30, 1991, two weeks after the beginning of the Gulf War, the
German government agreed to supply Israel with armaments worth 1.2
billion deutsche marks. This included the complete financing of two
submarines with 880 million deutsche marks. The budgetary miracle had
come to pass. Israel had found its benefactor.
According to military wisdom, a country that buys one or two
submarines will also buy a third one. One submarine is usually in
dock, while the other two take turns being deployed during
operations. "After we had ordered the first two boats, it was clear
that we had entered into a deal which would involve repeat orders,"
says an individual who was a member of the Israeli cabinet at the
On a winter´s day in 1994, at about 6 p.m., an Israeli Air Force
plane landed in the military area of Cologne-Bonn Airport. Its
passengers wanted to discuss the future of Israel and the Middle
East. On board were three men: Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, his
national security adviser and Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit. The small
delegation was driven to the chancellor´s residence, where Kohl was
waiting with his foreign policy adviser, Joachim Bitterlich, and his
intelligence coordinator, Bernd Schmidbauer.
Wheat Beer for Israel
On that evening, Kohl and Rabin discussed the path to peace in the
Middle East. Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had been
jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the year before, together with
Peres. For the first time in a long time, conciliation seemed
possible between the Jews and the Palestinians, with Germany serving
as a middleman.
In Bonn, Rabin spoke at length about the German-Israeli relationship,
which was still difficult. At dinner, Kohl surprised his visitors by
serving wheat beer. The Israelis were delighted. "The beer tastes
great," Rabin said. The ice had been broken.
On that evening, the Israeli premier asked the Germans for a third
submarine, and Kohl spontaneously agreed. At around midnight,
Schmidbauer took Rabin back to airport. Kohl, who was virtually
unsurpassed in the art of male bonding in politics, sent a case of
wheat beer to Israel for Christmas in 1994.
A few months after the secret meeting in Bonn, in February 1995, the
contract for the third submarine, the Tekumah, was signed. The German
share of the costs totaled 220 million deutsche marks.
THE WELL-PROTECTED SECRETS OF THE SHIPYARD IN KIEL
Since then, one of the most secretive arms projects in the Western
world has been underway in Kiel, where a special form of bonding
between the German and the Israeli people developed. Around half a
dozen Israelis work at the shipyard today on a long-term basis.
Friendships, some of them close, have formed between HDW engineers
and their families and the Israeli families, and special occasions
are celebrated together. But despite these friendships, the Israelis
always make sure that no outsiders are allowed near the submarines.
Even managers from Thyssen-Krupp, which bought HDW in 2005, are
denied access. "The main goal of everyone involved was to ensure that
there would be no public debate about the project, neither in Israel
nor in Germany," says former Israeli navy chief Ayalon. This explains
why everything related to the equipment on the ships remains hidden
behind a veil of secrecy.
One of the special features is the equipment used in the Dolphin
class, which is named after the first ship. Unlike conventional
submarines, the Dolphins don´t just have torpedo tubes with a 533-
millimeter diameter in the steel bow. In response to a special
Israeli request, the HDW engineers designed four additional tubes
that are 650 millimeters in diameter -- a special design not found in
any other submarine in the Western world.
What is the purpose of the large tubes? In a classified 2006 memo,
the German government argued that the tubes are an "option for the
transfer of special forces and the pressure-free stowage of their
equipment" -- combat swimmers, for example --, who can be released
through the narrow shaft for secret operations. The same explanation
is given by the Israelis.
Keeping Options Open
In the United States, however, it has long been speculated that the
wider shafts could be intended for ballistic missiles armed with
nuclear warheads. This suspicion was fueled by an Israeli request for
US Tomahawk cruise missiles in 2000. The missiles have a range of
over 600 kilometers, while nuclear versions can even fly about 2,500
kilometers. But Washington rejected the request twice. This is why
the Israelis still rely on ballistic missiles of their own design
today, such as Popeye Turbo.
Their use as nuclear carrier missiles is readily possible in the
Dolphins. Contrary to official assumptions, HDW equipped the Israeli
submarines with a newly developed hydraulic ejection system instead
of a compressed air ejection system. In this process, water is
compressed with the help of a hydraulic ram. The resulting pressure
is then used to catapult the weapon out of the shaft.
The resulting momentum is limited, however, and it isn´t enough to
eject a three to five-ton midrange missile out of the ship, at least
according to insiders. This is not the case with lighter-weight
missiles weighing up to 1.5 tons -- like the Popeye Turbo or the
American Tomahawk, which weighs just that, nuclear warhead included.
There are indications that, with the expanded tubes, the Israelis
wanted to keep open the option of future, more voluminous
Part 5: The Germans and the Atomic Question: No Questions, No Problems
The Germans don´t want to know anything about that. "It was clear to
each of us, without anything being said, that the ships had been
tailored to the needs of the Israelis, and that that could also
include nuclear capabilities," says a senior German official involved
during the Kohl era. "But in politics there are questions that it´s
better not to ask, because the answer would be a problem."
To this day, former German Foreign Minister Genscher and former
Defense Minister Volker Ruhe say they do not believe that Israel has
equipped the submarines with nuclear weapons.
For their part, experts with the German military, the Bundeswehr, do
not doubt the nuclear capability of the submarines, but they do doubt
whether cruise missiles could be developed on the basis of the Popeye
Turbo that could fly 1,500 kilometers.
Some military experts suggest, therefore, that the Israeli government
is bluffing, in a bid to make Iran believe that the Jewish state
already has a sea-based second-strike capability. That alone would be
enough to force Tehran to commit considerable resources to defending
itself.The first person to publicly voice suspicions that the German
government was supporting Israel in its nuclear weapons program was
Norbert Gansel, an SPD politician from Kiel. Speaking in the German
parliament, the Bundestag, he stated that the SPD opposed the
shipment of "submarines suitable for nuclear missions" to Israel.
The German government did make at least one stab at clearing up the
nuclear issue. It was in 1988, when Defense Ministry State Secretary
Lother Rühl, during a visit to Israel, asked then Deputy Chief of
General Staff Ehud Barak what the "operational and strategic purpose
of the ships" was. "We need them to clear maritime maneuvering
areas," Barak replied. The Israeli mentioned the Egyptian naval
blockage of the Gulf of Aqaba ahead of the Six-Day War. The Israelis
wanted to be armed against such a step, he said. It sounded
plausible, but Rühl didn´t believe it.
Every German administration has been keenly aware of how explosive
the issue is. When the German Finance Ministry had to report the
funds for the financing of submarines 4 and 5 in 2006, the ministry
officials were clearly squirming. The planned weapons system is "not
suitable for the use of missiles equipped with nuclear warheads. The
submarines are therefore not being constructed and equipped for
launching nuclear weapons," reads a classified document from Finance
Ministry State Secretary Karl Diller to the Bundestag budget
committee dated Aug. 29, 2006.
In other words, the government was saying that Germany delivered a
conventional submarine -- what the Israelis did with it afterwards
was their own business. In 1999, the then State Secretary Brigitte
Schulte wrote that the German government could not "rule out any
armament for which the operating navy has capability, following the
THE WAR OVER THE BOMB: THE CONFLICT BETWEEN ISRAEL AND IRAN
The conflict between Israel and Iran has intensified steadily since
2006. War is a real danger. For months now, Israel has been preparing
governments around the world, as well as the international public,
for a bombing of the nuclear facilities at Natanz, Fordu and Isfahan
using cutting-edge conventional, bunker-busting weapons. Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Ehud Barak are
convinced that the "window" is closing in which such an attack would
be effective, as Iran is in the process of moving most of its nuclear
enrichment activities deep below ground.
In his recent controversial poem "What Must Be Said," Günter Grass
describes the submarines, "whose speciality consists in (their)
ability / to direct nuclear warheads toward / an area in which not a
single atom bomb / has yet been proved to exist," as the potentially
decisive step towards a nuclear disaster in the Iran conflict. The
poem met with international protests. Comparing Israel and Iran
was "not brilliant, but absurd," said German Foreign Minister Guido
Westerwelle. Netanyahu spoke of an "absolute scandal" and his
interior minister banned Grass from entering Israel.
But some people agreed with the author. Gansel, the SPD politician,
says that Grass has triggered an important debate, because
Netanyahu´s "ranting about preventive war" touches on a difficult
aspect of international law. In reality, it is unlikely that Israel
will use the submarines in a war with Iran as long as Tehran does not
have nuclear missiles -- even though the Israeli government has
considered using the "Samson" option on at least two occasions in the
The country´s military situation following the Egyptian and Syrian
surprise attack during the 1973 Yom Kippur holiday was so desperate
that Prime Minister Golda Meir -- as intelligence service reports
have now revealed -- ordered her Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to
prepare several nuclear bombs for combat and deliver them to air
force units. Then, just before the warheads were to be armed, the
tide turned. Israel´s forces gained the upper hand on the
battlefield, and the bombs made their way back to their underground
Unwillingness to Compromise
And in the first hours of the 1991 Gulf War, an American satellite
registered that Israel had responded to the bombardment by Iraqi Scud
missiles by mobilizing its nuclear force. Israeli analysts had
mistakenly assumed that the Scuds would be armed with poison gas. It
remains unclear how Israel would have acted if a Scud missile tipped
with nerve gas had hit a residential area.
Only Netanyahu and Iran´s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
probably know how close the world stands today to a new war. The
Israeli prime minister and Khamenei have "one thing in common," says
Walther Stützle, a former state secretary in Germany´s Federal
Defense Ministry: "They enjoy conflict. If Israel attacks, Iran slips
out of the aggressor role and into that of victim." The UN won´t
provide the mandate that would legitimize such an attack, which means
Israel would be breaking the law, argues Stützle, who is now at the
German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), a
Berlin-based think tank. "True friendship," he believes, "requires
the German chancellor to stay Netanyahu´s arm and prevent him from
resorting to an armed attack. Germany´s obligation to protect Israel
includes protecting the country from embarking on suicidal
Helmut Schmidt went even further, long before Grass. "Hardly anyone
dares to criticize Israel here, out of fear of being accused of anti-
Semitism," the former chancellor told Jewish American historian Fritz
Stern. Yet Israel is a country, Schmidt suggests, that "makes a
peaceful solution practically impossible, through its policies of
settlement in the West Bank and, for far longer, in the Gaza Strip."
He also condemns the current chancellor for, in his view, allowing
herself to be essentially taken hostage by Israel. Schmidt says, "I
wonder whether it was a feeling of closeness with American policies,
or nebulous moral motives, that led Chancellor Merkel to publicly
state in 2008 that Germany bears responsibility for the security of
the State of Israel. From my point of view, this is a serious
exaggeration, one that sounds very nearly like the type of obligation
that exists within an alliance."
Schmidt considers it plain that Berlin has no business participating
in adventurous policies, and he draws clear boundaries: "Germany has
a particular responsibility to make sure that a crime such as the
Holocaust never again occurs. Germany does not have a responsibility
From the start, Merkel viewed the matter differently from her
predecessor Schröder, who approved the delivery of submarines number
4 and 5 on his last working day in office in 2005. For Chancellor
Merkel, on the other hand, there was never any doubt that she would
do what Israel asked, even at the cost of violating Germany´s own
arms export guidelines. The rules, amended in 2000 by the SPD-Green
coalition government, do allow weapons to be supplied to countries
that are not part of the EU or NATO in the case of "special foreign
or security policy interests." But there is a clear regulation for
crisis regions: The rules state that supplying weapons "is not
authorized in countries that are involved in armed conflicts or where
there is a threat of one." There is no question that that rule would
include Israel. But that did not stop the chancellor from making a
deal for the delivery of submarine number 6 -- just as she was not
deterred by Netanyahu´s unwillingness to make compromises.
Part 6: The Deal for Submarine Number Six
In August 2009, Netanyahu, who had recently been re-elected as prime
minister as head of the conservative Likud party, came to Berlin.
Netanyahu explained to Merkel how important the submarines were for
Israel; that wherever an Israeli looks, to the north, south, or east,
there is no strategic hinterland to work with, and only airspace and
sea to serve as buffer zones. "We need this sixth boat," participants
in the meeting say Netanyahu told Merkel during his Berlin visit,
coupling the statement with a request that Germany donate this
submarine, as it had the previous ones.
Merkel´s response included three specific requests in exchange.
First, Israel should halt its policy of settlement expansion, and
second, the government should release tax assets it had frozen, which
belong to the Palestinian National Authority. Third, Israel must
allow construction of a sewage treatment plant in the Gaza Strip,
funded by Germany, to continue. The critical factor, the chancellor
added, was absolute discretion. If details leaked out, the deal would
be off, because resistance from the Bundestag would be too much to
overcome. The two leaders agreed that German diplomat Christoph
Heusgen and Netanyahu´s security advisor Uzi Arad would work out the
Arad is known as an impulsive and hotheaded individual who has no
problem with verbally attacking the Germans. When Merkel criticized
Israel´s settlement policy in a July 2009 address to the Bundestag,
Arad called the Chancellery and fired off a volley of angry
complaints at Heusgen. Arad ended the call with the demand that
Merkel should not only apologize, but also retract her statements.
Asking for Help
The fact that Arad was supposed to be leading the negotiations
delayed the talks over the sixth submarine once again. In the end,
Netanyahu asked Yoram Ben-Zeev, Israel´s ambassador to Germany, to
Ben-Zeev returned to Israel when his term as ambassador ended on
November 28, 2011. He was standing outside his house in Tzahala, a
suburb of Tel Aviv, when his cell phone rang. It was Jaakov Amidror,
Netanyahu´s new security adviser.
"Are you sitting down?" Amidror asked.
"I´m standing in my neglected garden," Ben-Zeev replied.
"Netanyahu has one more request," Amidror told him. "Germany is ready
to sign the submarine deal. You need to get on the next flight to
Ultimately, Ben-Zeev and Heusgen agreed on the final details over the
phone, and the contract was signed on March 20, 2012, at the Israeli
ambassador´s residence in Berlin. Defense Minister Barak flew in
especially for the meeting and Rüdiger Wolf, a state secretary in the
Federal Defense Ministry, signed on behalf of the German government.
Since the Israeli government had financial problems once again,
Germany made further concessions, agreeing to pay €135 million ($170
million), a third of the submarine´s cost, and to allow Israel to
defer payment of its part until 2015. Netanyahu dutifully expressed
his thanks with a hand-written letter.
Still, disappointment within the Chancellery is running high, as
Netanyahu has simply ignored Merkel´s requests. Israel´s policy of
settlement continues unabated and no further progress has been made
on the sewage treatment plant. The Israeli government only released
the Palestinian tax money. Merkel has apparently reached the
conclusion that there´s no point in saying anything further to
Netanyahu, since he´s sure not to listen in any case.
Missed an Opportunity
But should the German government take this as cause to halt submarine
production? That would send Israel a signal that German support comes
with certain stipulations -- but it would also amount to showing less
solidarity, and that´s something Merkel doesn´t want.
The chancellor has missed an opportunity to use one of the few
sources of leverage the German government has at its disposal to
exercise influence on the Israeli government, which behaves like an
occupying power on Palestinian territory. The fourth submarine, known
as Tannin, was first launched in early May and its delivery is set
for early 2013. Submarine number five will follow in 2014 and number
six by 2017.
These latest submarines are especially important for Israel, because
they come equipped with a technological revolution: fuel cell
propulsion that allows the ships to work even more quietly and for
longer periods of time. Earlier Dolphin class submarines had to
surface every couple days to start up the diesel engine and power
their batteries for continued underwater travel. The new propulsion
system, which doesn´t require these surface breaks, vastly improves
the submarines´ possible applications. They will be able to travel
underwater at least four times as long as the previous Dolphins,
their fuel cells allowing them to stay below the surface at least 18
days at a time. The Persian Gulf off the coast of Iran is no longer
out of the operating range of the Israeli fleet, all thanks to
quality engineering from Germany.
In the Haifa harbor, the Tekumah´s diesel engines growl loudly enough
that conversation is just barely possible. Out at sea, though, when
the submarine is in true operation and all systems are functioning
cleanly, "you can barely hear the motors at all," says the naval
officer in charge of the boat. The Tekumah can plow through the water
at speeds of 20 knots and above, a sleek and powerful predator. But
the real skill, says the officer, comes in the low-speed operations
carried out near enemy coasts, places where the Israeli Navy works
covertly, where the Tekumah and the other submarines have to approach
their targets with great care, moving as if on tiptoe.
The naval officer sees his submarine as "one of the places where
Israel is being defended" and his determined tone leaves no doubt he
will take whatever action necessary if he considers his homeland to
be under attack. "The Israeli Navy needed this boat," he says.
He also says he followed the controversy over Günter Grass´ poem and
was surprised by the intensity of the debate. His own family
originally came from Germany -- his grandparents managed to escape
before the Holocaust, fleeing their Munich suburb in 1934 and later
becoming part of Israel´s founding generation. "We can never forget
the past," he says, "but we can do everything possible to prevent a
This naval officer will likely be needed to serve onboard submarines
for some time to come. In Israel, Berlin and Kiel, they are already
talking about the fact that the Israelis will soon want to order
their 7th, 8th and 9th submarines.
BY RONEN BERGMAN, ERICH FOLLATH, EINAT KEINAN, OTFRIED NASSAUER, JÖRG
SCHMITT, HOLGER STARK, THOMAS WIEGOLD and KLAUS WIEGREFE Translated
from the German by Christopher Sultan
Return to Top
MATERIAL REPRODUCED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY