Operation Samson Israel's Deployment of Nuclear Missiles on Subs from Germany


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.

Clearly Squirming

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 appropriate retrofitting."


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 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 adventures."

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 make compromises.


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