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 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 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 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 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 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 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.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the meeting between Yitzhak Rabin and Helmut Kohl took place in the winter of 1994. In fact, the meeting took place in March 1995.
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
The United States (because of a powerful ethnic lobby) and Germany (because of shame and guilt) are practically the only states left in the world who are not able to objectively look at what has been happening in the Middle East [...] more...
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