How Israel Tried to Conceal Its Biggest Arms Deal With Germany

Hundreds of documents just uploaded to the Israel State Archives website shed light on German arms sales to Israel in the 1960s.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

On October 28, 1964, the foreign minister in Jerusalem received a report of a meeting that was cochaired by the deputy defense minister and senior Foreign Ministry officials. The topic was “scientific and military cooperation between Israel and Germany.”

Classified as “top secret,” the cable reported that a decision had been made to prevent the matter from being reported in the Israeli media. More specifically, in the spirit of the times, the participants decided “to convene the editors of the Israeli newspapers and ask them to keep the matter quiet.” It then added, “The deputy defense minister has done this.”

What were the foreign and defense ministries trying to hide? On Wednesday, the Israel State Archives published on its website hundreds of documents relating to Israeli-German relations. Some of them have to do with the details of a secret arms deal that collapsed in the mid-1960s and caused a serious crisis in bilateral relations, even before these relations had been formally established.

The documents are part of a series the archive has been publishing on the history of the Foreign Ministry that offer interesting lessons in diplomacy, politics, foreign relations and history. The documents also reveal how dependent both Israel’s security and its economy were on Germany.

The first Israeli-German defense talks took place in 1957, between then-Defense Ministry Director General Shimon Peres and West German Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss. In 1960, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion met in New York with German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in which “emphasis was put on Israel’s need for small submarines and anti-aircraft missiles,” the archivists wrote in an introduction to the documents posted on the website.

But information about the defense ties between the two countries during those years is still in complete. “Documentation on the start of these relations or of the contents of the transactions and their scope is not yet available,” the introduction said.

In the early 1960s, Israel decided to buy surplus American tanks that had been given to Germany. The deal ultimately included 200 tanks, mobile cannons, six boats (intended as missile boats) and submarines. “This was a large scale arms deal, of supreme importance for renewing the IDF’s military arsenal, as well as having important political significance,” the introduction noted.

The deal was kept secret, and the first shipments went off without a hitch. But in late October 1964, word of the deal leaked to the German press. Israel at first denied the deal’s existence, but in Germany the reports sparked a lively public debate that led to a severe crisis in bilateral relations.

In response to the media reports, the German government revealed the scope of the deal, saying it was worth 200 million deutsche marks a year and included arms, planes and boats. Domestic opposition resulted in a decision to stop supplying weapons to conflict regions in general and to cancel the deal with Israel in particular. In place of the arms it wasn’t supplying, Germany offered Israel cash.

The German offer enraged Israel. On February 9, 1965, the prime minister convened a special meeting on the matter in Jerusalem. The next day, Deputy Defense Minister Shimon Peres sent a cable to the Israeli diplomatic delegation in Cologne with an update.

“We insist on the agreement being fulfilled in full, including tanks, missile boats, Priests (self-propelled artillery) and submarines ... We insist forcefully both on our right to receive arms in general and on implementation of this agreement, which is vital to us,” Peres wrote.

Another interesting detail in the cable was the government’s assertion that Israel “doesn’t see itself as being located in a conflict region or as involved in an armed struggle,” but “as part of the Jewish people, which is under constant threat of annihilation from the dictatorial government in Egypt.”

For this reason, Peres continued, Germany must not cancel the deal with Israel, even if it decides to stop selling arms to conflict zones in general. “If the Germans want to pass a law, they must commit themselves to correcting historical injustices toward the Jewish people and not make life easier for their simplistic policy at our expense,” he wrote.

The Germans responded by sending a special envoy to Israel to discuss the entire bilateral relationship, including the issue of arms sales. In the end, following substantive discussions, the two countries announced the establishment of formal diplomatic relations, as well as the completion of the arms deal.

The documents and their introduction were prepared by a team of archivists headed by Dr. Hagai Tsoref and the former state archivist, Dr. Yehoshua Freundlich.

M7 Priest Howitzer of the type Israel purchased from Germany in the early 1960s.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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