The World from Berlin 'Helping Israel Defend Itself Is Germany's Duty'

Opposition parties in Germany are demanding answers about the sale of nuclear-capable submarines to Israel, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that the vessels are "very important" for his country's security. Media commentators argue that Germany has a historical duty to support the Jewish state.

An Israeli Dolphin-class submarine on maneuvers (2008 photo).

An Israeli Dolphin-class submarine on maneuvers (2008 photo).

SPIEGEL's cover story about the sale of German-built submarines to Israel, which were then equipped with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, has provoked a storm of debate in Germany and internationally.

According to extensive research carried out by SPIEGEL, Israel is equipping submarines built in the northern German city of Kiel and partly paid for by the German government with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. Three Dolphin-class submarines have already been delivered to Israel, and three more will be delivered by 2017. The contract for the sixth submarine was signed only recently.

On Monday, opposition parties called for an explanation from the German government and more transparency on weapons deals. "The German governments needs to reveal the facts and make a report to the relevant parliamentary committee," Cem Özdemir, co-leader of the Green Party, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

The opposition center-left Social Democrats (SPD) have been muted in their reaction, however. In 2005, former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder personally approved the delivery of submarines to Israel.

The German government has neither confirmed nor denied the SPIEGEL report, which was published Monday. Government spokesman Steffen Seibert said that the government did not get involved "in speculation about a possible later armament" of the submarines, adding that the vessels were delivered "without weapons."

Philipp Missfelder, parliamentary foreign policy spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, told the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung that the Israeli government was solely responsible for the decision about how the submarines were equipped. "We have to respect that," he said.

'Give Us the Tools and We Will Do the Job'

In an interview published in the Tuesday edition of the mass-circulation daily Bild, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the German-built submarines were "very important" for defending Israel's security. The recent sale of another German submarine was "an important adjunct to our national security," he said.

Netanyahu stressed that Israel had never asked other countries to come to its defense. "One of the great transformations in the reconstitution of the Jewish state is the regaining by the Jewish people of the ability to defend ourselves by ourselves against any threat," he told Bild. "While I appreciate Germany's concern for Israel's security, the most important assistance that can be given to Israel is -- to paraphrase Churchill -- to give us the tools and we will do the job of defending ourselves."

Merkel's stated position is that the security of Israel is part of Germany's raison d'état, or national interest.

In the past, the German government has always stuck to the position that it is unaware of nuclear weapons being deployed on the vessels. Former high-ranking officials from the German Defense Ministry, including former State Secretary Lothar Rühl and former chief of the planning staff Hans Rühle, told SPIEGEL, however, that they had always assumed that Israel would deploy nuclear weapons on the submarines.

Experts had long suspected that the submarines were intended to carry nuclear weapons. Few insiders believed the official explanation that the vessels' unusually wide torpedo tubes were designed to allow combat swimmers to exit the submarines. The SPIEGEL story provided previously unknown details of the deal and reconstructed the historical context of the German-Israeli negotiations.

On Tuesday, German commentators took a look at the ramifications of the news.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"It's been known for a long time that Israel ordered German submarines with unusually large torpedo tubes -- and that the diameter of the tubes has nothing to do with the girth of its combat swimmers."

"Every German government which provided Israel with these submarines must have known that they were not for protecting the coast. The German military aid for Israel has, however, had new implications ever since the Israelis started thinking about a conventional or nuclear preemptive strike against Iran. The German submarines with their fuel cells could have been designed specially for use in the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf. From there, cruise missiles fired (from a submarine) could easily reach almost any destination in Iran. But the German government does not, of course, want to get involved in such speculation. That would run counter to the country's raison d'état."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"In the German political debate, 'Israel' is an emotive word that triggers kneejerk reactions from the public -- especially when combined with terms such as 'arms exports' or even 'nuclear bombs.' (…) The context and the complexity of individual decisions regarding Israel, arms sales, the settlements or controversial border barriers are quickly forgotten in the process."

"None of the major German political parties have fundamentally criticized supplying weapons to Israel. (…) After all, no serious politician would claim that Israel's security and existence is not in Germany's interests -- for historical reasons, naturally, but also for geopolitical ones. (…) And if the state of Israel considers submarines to be necessary for its protection, then Berlin has little reason to contradict it."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Israel is so small that it could be destroyed with a few nuclear bombs. The submarines, however, give the country an effective deterrent, because they allow it to retaliate. Second-strike capability, as it is called in military jargon, is Israel's most important insurance policy if a hostile country like Iran actually gets the bomb one day."

"By supplying Israel with submarines, Germany has not provided it with new offensive weapons -- of which the country already has enough. The submarines are instead the means for a final, desperate act of defense. Helping Israel in that respect is Germany's historical duty."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Germany is a strange country. When SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel recently traveled to Hebron and said that the disenfranchisement of the Palestinians reminded him of apartheid in South Africa, a storm of outrage broke out. But the fact that Israel's government is pushing ahead with settlements, thereby destroying the basis for a two-state solution, is accepted by most German politicians and journalists with a shrug of the shoulders."

"Similarly, the (news) that Germany is supplying Israel with submarines which can be equipped with nuclear weapons has prompted little indignation. But when a writer such as Günter Grass, in an unfortunately worded poem, gives expression to his concern that this could lead to an escalation in the conflict with Iran, half of Germany takes offense. It is to SPIEGEL's credit that it has tried to steer the debate back along rational lines."

"It's a serious matter when Germany, as the world's third-largest arms exporter, apparently pays little consideration to the consequences of its policy (of exporting submarines to Israel). After all, military equipment is not supposed to be exported to crisis regions (under German government guidelines). This applies to the export of German tanks to Saudi Arabia as well as to the supply of nuclear-capable submarines to Israel, whose government is currently openly threatening to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. When he criticized that fact, Grass had a point."

-- David Gordon Smith


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