The pride of the Israeli navy is rocking gently in the swells of the Mediterranean, with the silhouette of the Carmel mountain range reflected on the water’s surface. To reach the Tekumah, you have to walk across a wooden jetty at the pier in the port of Haifa, and then climb into a tunnel shaft leading to the submarine’s interior. The navy officer in charge of visitors, a brawny man in his 40s with his eyes hidden behind a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses, bounces down the steps. When he reaches the lower deck, he turns around and says: “Welcome on board the Tekumah. Welcome to my toy.”
He pushes back a bolt and opens the refrigerator, revealing zucchini, a pallet of yoghurt cups and a two-liter bottle of low-calorie cola. The Tekumah has just returned from a secret mission in the early morning hours.
The navy officer, whose name the military censorship office wants to keep secret, leads the visitors past a pair of bunks and along a steel frame. The air smells stale, not unlike the air in the living room of an apartment occupied solely by men. At the middle of the ship, the corridor widens and merges into a command center, with work stations grouped around a periscope. The officer stands still and points to a row of monitors, with signs bearing the names of German electronics giant Siemens and Atlas, a Bremen-based electronics company, screwed to the wall next to them.
The “Combat Information Center,” as the Israelis call the command center, is the heart of the submarine, the place where all information comes together and all the operations are led. The ship is controlled from two leather chairs. It looks as if it could be in the cockpit of a small aircraft. A display lit up in red shows that the vessel’s keel is currently located 7.15 meters (23.45 feet) below sea level.
“This was all built in Germany, according to Israeli specifications,” the navy officer says,”and so were the weapons systems.” The Tekuma, 57 meters long and 7 meters wide, is a showpiece of precision engineering, painted in blue and made in Germany. To be more precise, it is a piece of precision engineering made in Germany that is suitable for equipping with nuclear weapons.
No Room for Doubt
Deep in their interiors, on decks 2 and 3, the submarines contain a secret that even in Israel is only known to a few insiders: nuclear warheads, small enough to be mounted on a cruise missile, but explosive enough to execute a nuclear strike that would cause devastating results. This secret is considered one of the best kept in modern military history. Anyone who speaks openly about it in Israel runs the risk of being sentenced to a lengthy prison term.
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.
Foreign journalists have never boarded one of the combat vessels before. In an unaccustomed display of openness, senior politicians and military officials with the Jewish state were, however, now willing to talk about the importance of German-Israeli military cooperation and Germany’s role, albeit usually under the condition of anonymity. “In the end, it’s very simple,” says Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. “Germany is helping to defend Israel’s security. The Germans can be proud of the fact that they have secured the existence of the State of Israel for many years to come.”
On the other hand, any research that did take place in Israel was subject to censorship. Quotes by Israelis, as well as the photographer’s pictures, had to be submitted to the military. Questions about Israel’s nuclear capability, whether on land or on water, were taboo. And decks 2 and 3, where the weapons are kept, remained off-limits to the visitors.
In Germany, the government’s military assistance for Israel’s submarine program has been controversial for about 25 years, a topic of discussion for the media and the parliament. Chancellor Angela Merkel fears the kind of public debate that German Nobel literature laureate Günter Grass recently reignited with a poem critical of Israel. Merkel insists on secrecy and doesn’t want the details of the deal to be made public. To this day, the German government is sticking to its position that it does not know anything about an Israeli nuclear weapons program.
‘Purposes of Nuclear Capability’
But now, former top German officials have admitted to the nuclear dimension for the first time. “I assumed from the very beginning that the submarines were supposed to be nuclear-capable,” says Hans Rühle, the head of the planning staff at the German Defense Ministry in the late 1980s. Lothar Rühl, a former state secretary in the Defense Ministry, says that he never doubted that “Israel stationed nuclear weapons on the ships.” And Wolfgang Ruppelt, the director of arms procurement at the Defense Ministry during the key phase, admits that it was immediately clear to him that the Israelis wanted the ships “as carriers for weapons of the sort that a small country like Israel cannot station on land.” Top German officials speaking under the protection of anonymity were even more forthcoming. “From the beginning, the boats were primarily used for the purposes of nuclear capability,” says one ministry official with knowledge of the matter.
Insiders say that the Israeli defense technology company Rafael built the missiles for the nuclear weapons option. Apparently it involves a further development of cruise missiles of the Popeye Turbo SLCM type, which are supposed to have a range of around 1,500 kilometers (940 miles) and which could reach Iran with a warhead weighing up to 200 kilograms (440 pounds). The nuclear payload comes from the Negev Desert, where Israel has operated a reactor and an underground plutonium separation plant in Dimona since the 1960s. The question of how developed the Israeli cruise missiles are is a matter of debate. Their development is a complex project, and the missiles’ only public manifestation was a single test that the Israelis conducted off the coast of Sri Lanka.
The submarines are the military response to the threat in a region “where there is no mercy for the weak,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak says. They are an insurance policy against the Israelis’ fundamental fear that “the Arabs could slaughter us tomorrow,” as David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the State of Israel, once said. “We shall never again be led as lambs to the slaughter,” was the lesson Ben-Gurion and others drew from Auschwitz.
Armed with nuclear weapons, the submarines are a signal to any enemy that the Jewish state itself would not be totally defenseless in the event of a nuclear attack, but could strike back with the ultimate weapon of retaliation. The submarines are “a way of guaranteeing that the enemy will not be tempted to strike pre-emptively with non-conventional weapons and get away scot-free,” as Israeli Admiral Avraham Botzer puts it.
Questions of Global Political Responsibility
In this version of tit-for-tat, known as nuclear second-strike capability, hundreds of thousands of dead are avenged with an equally large number of casualties. It is a strategy the United States and Russia practiced during the Cold War by constantly keeping part of its nuclear arsenal ready on submarines. For Israel, a country about the size of the German state of Hesse, which could be wiped out with a nuclear strike, safeguarding this threat potential is vital to its very existence. At the same time, the nuclear arsenal causes countries like Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia to regard Israel’s nuclear capacity with fear and envy and consider building their own nuclear weapons.
This makes the question of its global political responsibility all the more relevant for Germany. 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?
Is Berlin recklessly promoting an arms race in the Middle East? Or should Germany, as its historic obligation stemming from the crimes of the Nazis, assume a responsibility that has become “part of Germany’s reason of state,” as Chancellor Merkel said in a speech to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, in March 2008? “It means that for me, as a German chancellor, Israel’s security is never negotiable,” Merkel told the lawmakers.
The perils of such unconditional solidarity were addressed by Germany’s new president, Joachim Gauck, during his first official visit to Jerusalem last Tuesday: “I don’t want to imagine every scenario that could get the chancellor in tremendous trouble, when it comes to politically implementing her statement that Israel’s security is part of Germany’s reason of state.”
The German government has always pursued an unwritten rule on its Israel policy, which has already lasted half a century and survived all changes of administrations, and that former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder summarized in 2002 when he said: “I want to be very clear: Israel receives what it needs to maintain its security.”