A special case: the German-Israeli security cooperation | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 12.05.2015

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A special case: the German-Israeli security cooperation

Normally, Germany wouldn't export weapons to a country involved in conflicts such as the one between Israel and Gaza. But the German-Israeli partnership is a special case.

Ursula von der Leyen is currently in Israel on the occasion of the 50 year anniversary of the start of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel. The German defense minister will visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem and host a reception for defense officials from both countries on the German frigate "Karlsruhe" in the port of Haifa.

On her two-day visit, von der Leyen will also sit down with her Israeli counterpart Moshe Ya'alon to discuss the countries' bilateral security cooperation and ways to strengthen it further. Germany and Israel have a special relationship, not just since Angela Merkel announced in a 2008 speech that protecting Israel's security was part of Germany's "raison d'être."

The special case of arms exports to Israel

Looking at the total amount of euros, Israel was the largest third-country recipient of German arms exports in the first half of 2014, according to the German government's armament export interim report. Third countries are those that aren't EU- or NATO-members.

Israel leading this group is remarkable, because according to guidelines, Germany is not supposed to export weapons to a country that is at war or facing conflicts at its borders - conditions that definitely apply to Israel, which fought a war with Gaza last summer and is in constant conflict with the Palestinian territories.

But Israel is a special case for two reasons, explained Sylke Tempel, editor-in-chief of "Internationale Politik" (International Politics) and the "Berlin Policy Journal," two publications of the German Council on Foreign Relations. According to the political analyst, Germany sells weapons to Israel because of the history linking the two countries - and for geopolitical reasons.

"It's the state that became a home for Holocaust survivors and the only state in the world that would welcome Jewish refugees without any question, should Jews be persecuted again," Tempel told DW. "And Israel is the most pluralistic democracy in the region. Sure, it's a democracy with flaws, but it is a democracy."

Contentious submarines

The reason that Israel tops the list of buyers for Germany's arms exports in the first half of 2014 is a deal for six submarines, the first of which was delivered in 1999. Back then Germany agreed to sell Israel six Dolphin submarines that would be tailored to Israel's military needs. Four have already been delivered, with two yet to come.

The Dolphins are surrounded by controversy, because experts have raised the questions of whether the submarines could be outfitted with nuclear warheads that Israel could use as a deterrent to stave off aggressions from Iran.

Christian Mölling. (Photo: swp)

Mölling: no German foreign minister would dare to touch the submarine deal

"If there was proof for this, the German government would have to investigate," Christian Mölling, expert for security and defense with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told DW. "Because then it wouldn't just be an arms deal, it would be nuclear proliferation. But I think because it's Israel and it's such a special case, some people on the German side would be more likely to look the other way."

Learning the art of asymmetric warfare

The German forces profit from the close security partnership as well. The military leases surveillance drones from the Israeli army, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). And soldiers from the German Bundeswehr traveled to Israel to learn the ways of asymmetric warfare from their IDF colleagues.

The Israelis have a lot more experience with fighting opponents who use non-traditional means like road bombs and who hide among civilian populations. The German soldiers were able to put this training to use in their deployment in Afghanistan, where they had to fight insurgents using a similar approach.

The fact that this training cooperation was even possible shows just how far the relationship between Germany and Israel has come in the last 70 years.

"In 1965, 20 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, it was inconceivable that an Israeli government would have let German soldiers enter the country who were old enough to have fought in the Wehrmacht [the Nazi forces," Tempel said. "That cooperation on the security level was possible at all is due to the improvement of political relations over time."

Valuable ship deal

And the close partnership continues to be profitable for both sides. On Monday, Germany and Israel agreed on a deal that will see Germany sell four war ships to its partner. The Corvettes will cost a total of 430 million Euro ($479 million). According to a statement by the Israeli defense ministry, Israel plans to use the small war ships to defend its offshore energy assets, the gas fields off the Israeli coast.

Berlin will fund 115 million Euro ($128 million) of the package. Defense expert Mölling said such a subsidy isn't common and chalked it up to the special relationship between the two countries.

The German company ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems is supposed to deliver the ships within the next five years.

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