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


Part 2: 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 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 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 "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 German 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 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 Holocaust.


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 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.


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