Israel's Deployment of Nuclear Missiles on Subs
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
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.
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 morning
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 sea level.
"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
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
'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 nuclear weapons.
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
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."
Franz-Josef Strauss and the Beginnings of Illegal Arms
Cooperation 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
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 economic miracle.
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
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
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 victory."
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
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
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 concerned."
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.
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 nuclear option.
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, Shin Bet.
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
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 forces.
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
'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
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 good together."
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
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
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
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
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
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 past.
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 bunkers.
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
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
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 for Israel."
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
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 details.
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
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 help out.
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
"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 Berlin."
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
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
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
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 new Holocaust."
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.
Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
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and to change it.
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