Rising To The Surface: Germany?s Hushed Shipments Of Nuclear-Capable Submarines To Israel

ANALYSIS

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Israeli new Dolphin-class submarine docks in Haifa port July 27, on arrival from Germany.
Israeli new Dolphin-class submarine docks in Haifa port July 27, on arrival from Germany.

A new report is raising important questions about Germany's commitment to Israel's defense capabilities.

German magazine Der Spiegel published an investigative article in print and online on Monday, arguing that German officials were aware that the submarines they have supplied to Israel over the past several years are capable of launching nuclear warheads. 

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 capability, said the article.

Officially, Israel does not admit to having nuclear weapons in the first place. Also officially, the German government denies any knowledge of Israel's nuclear capabilities or intentions.

But Israel's status as a nuclear-armed state has been widely assumed for years; according to some estimates, it could have an arsenal of about 200 nuclear warheads. It is understood to be the first -- and still the only -- country in the Middle East to have such weapons, and its official statement for decades has been that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the region, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Israel is not a member of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Meanwhile, Germany has upheld a strong commitment to the state of Israel. Following the Holocaust and the end of World War II, Spiegel reports that Germany's support for Israeli defense was immediately implemented and largely unquestioned: Ever since the era of Konrad Adenauer, the country's first post-war leader, German chancellors have pushed through various military deals with Israel without parliamentary approval.

Today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel maintains that Israel's security is Germany's raison d'é tat -- an inherent national interest.

It was in 1991 that the German government reached a deal to supply the first two so-called Dolphin submarines to Israel. This agreement followed an Iraqi attack -- Saddam Hussein had ordered the firing of Scud missiles into Haifa and Tel Aviv shortly after the first Gulf War began.

From the beginning, then, Germany's supply of submarines to Israel was tied to the threat of aggression from Middle Eastern countries.

What's special about the Dolphin submarines is that they have especially wide tubes for launching projectiles. Germany has explained that these are ideal for combat swimmers carrying equipment, but Spiegel reports that they are also suitable for nuclear-tipped missiles.

Since 1991, Israel and Germany have made deals for the construction and delivery of six Dolphin submarines. Three have already been delivered, and three more are scheduled for coming years. Agreements for even more submarines are likely in the works.

To many analysts, none of this news is especially surprising. But the Spiegel report is significant because it presents solid evidence not only that the submarines are equipped for nuclear use but that German officials have always known about it.

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, said one senior German official who went unnamed in the article. But in politics there are questions that it's better not to ask, because the answer would be a problem.

Today, Israel's nuclear capabilities are of increasing concern. Iran, which currently employs nuclear technology for energy and medicinal purposes, is engaged in a tense diplomatic standoff with Israel and other Western powers. Political leaders in Iran have threatened Israel's right to exist.

Israel claims that Iran's nuclear program has the objective of developing nuclear weapons, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that all options are on the table to prevent this from happening. We have waited for diplomacy to work. We have waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer, he said in March.

Right-wing members of the Israeli government have urged a military strike to prevent Iran from advancing its enrichment capabilities, and an ongoing rhetoric of brinkmanship on both sides raises worldwide concern about an explosion of conflict in the Middle East.

In this context, says the Spiegel report, Germany's support for Israel must be more closely examined. With an eye to the Holocaust and the subsequently deep and complicated relationship between the two countries, the report asks: 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?

This question was recently raised by Nobel Prize-winning German author Gunter Grass, who in April published a poem called What Must Be Said. In it, he argued that Israel was endangering world peace by threatening Iran and wondered whether German silence on the issue was caused by Holocaust-related guilt.

Though he endured harsh condemnation immediately following that publication, it turns out many Germans may actually agree with him.

A poll conducted by Forsa and published by the German magazine Stern in late May found that 60 percent of Germans think their state has no responsibilities toward Israel. Furthermore, a full 70 percent of those surveyed believe that Israel pursues its interests without consideration for other peoples.

The German-Israeli submarine issue, long submerged just beyond the bounds of acceptable public discourse, has risen to the surface in the wake of Spiegel's report. Now, German opposition parties are calling for clarity.

The German government needs to reveal the facts and make a report to the relevant parliamentary committee, said Cem Özdemir, a leader of the Green Party, to Spiegel this week.

Meanwhile, aside from reaffirming the government's official position of ignorance, Chancellor Merkel and other members of centrist and right-leaning parties are so far mum on the issue.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, took the opportunity to give an interview to Bild, a popular German tabloid. He gave no details about the submarines' nuclear capabilities but said that he appreciates that Germany demonstrates its commitment to Israel's security, according to Haaretz.

Now that the Spiegel report has sparked a new public interest in the matter, the public and media outlets may feel more emboldened to demand more transparency on the issue. After all, the German government has a policy of not exporting arms to nations in regions at risk of crisis -- parameters that would certainly include Israel.

The leftist German newspaper Die Tageszeitung was one of several publications to raise this important point.

It is to Spiegel's credit that it has tried to steer the debate along rational lines, it said on Monday. 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.

Centrist paper Der Tagespiegel also weighed in, opining that Germany's role in the Israeli military's program must win the approval of this government and the German taxpayer.

A wider public debate is on the horizon as German and Israeli citizens alike assume more responsibility for addressing this explosive issue. 

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