Memo to Netanyahu: German Largesse Won't Last Forever

Germany's agreement to sell 4 naval ships to Israel with a substantial subsidy is part of a long-time defense cooperation that must be maintained, despite political differences.

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An Israel Navy missile boat.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

The major transaction announced Monday, involving Israel’s purchase of four corvette naval ships from Germany at a cost of 430 million euros ($480 million), to be used to protect natural-gas drilling sites off Israel's Mediterranean coast, will fill a substantial gap in the defense of Israel’s economic assets. Israel’s increasing dependence on the gas supplies and the high expectations generated by the discovery of the offshore reserves (which has provoked harsh public criticism over how the profits are to be divided) also heightens interest in the rigs on the part of the country’s adversaries.

The drilling platforms are relatively exposed to attack, and a major strike on them could cause Israel huge financial losses. These are facts that all of the forces in the region, most notably the Lebanese-based Hezbollah militia, understand well. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has already hinted in the past that he would put Israel's strategic-infrastructure targets in his sights as a way of creating a balance of deterrence with Israel – this in light of Israeli threats to hit similar infrastructure in Lebanon in the event that another war breaks out there.

Hezbollah certainly has the operational capacity to hit the drilling sites in the sea, whether by dispatching terrorists on a commando raid there or by firing missiles from shore. (Plus, the Chinese C-802 missile, which hit the Israeli Hanit missile boat during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and the Russian Yakhont missile, are currently in Syria’s possession.)

The four corvettes from Germany will provide the main component of a defensive solution to protect Israel’s “economic waters,” the zone in which the rigs are located. In addition, however, there will be a number of other components involved in this effort – ranging from command and control systems and intelligence-gathering, to use of unmanned aircraft and also anti-missile defense systems (currently, the Israeli-made Barak 1 surface-to-air missile, and the more sophisticated Barak 8, expected to be declared operational toward the end of the year).

The negotiations between the governments of Germany and Israel were conducted for nearly two years, and based on the timetable announced this week, the four vessels will be supplied within five years. That means that until then, the Israel Navy will have to maneuver with what it has in its possession to secure the gas-production sites, relying on its current fleet.

The agreement was signed during a visit here by German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Each of the four ships in question is about 90 meters long, smaller than a destroyer, highly maneuverable and weighing about 2,000 tons. Once they arrive in Israel, they will be outfitted for the navy by Israeli defense firms with various special weapons systems. The new ships will be deployed hundreds of kilometers from shore.

The purchase of the vessels is being funded through a special budget that is not part of Israel's general defense budget. The agreement states that the German government will underwrite just over one-quarter of the purchase price through a 115-million-euro grant. In addition, ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, the company building the ships as well as a total of six Dolphin submarines for the Israel Navy, has committed to invest about 700 million shekels ($180 million) in future procurement of Israeli equipment and in Israeli research and development.

This is another impressive indication of Germany’s generosity with respect to everything related to military assistance to Israel, especially after it was reported that the Germans had funded about half of the even heftier cost of the Dolphins. At a later stage, just prior to the signing of a contract for the sale of the first submarines, there was also disclosure of aid that German companies provided to Iraq’s chemical weapons program in the 1980s.

Of course, the acts of generosity come against the backdrop of the long, sad history involving the memory of the Holocaust. Moreover, the latest grant to Israel again reflects the major reliance the country has on outside military aid, and not just from the United States. In the case of Europe, one cannot count on the generosity lasting forever, certainly in light of the demonstrable differences of opinion with Germany over the future of the peace process with the Palestinians.

At this week's joint news conference with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, von der Leyen stated that there is no other country with which Germany has such close defense ties. The incoming government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will need to see to it that this defense cooperation continues over the coming years, despite diplomatic differences of opinion.

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