Miki Ganor, the man whose scheming is currently making life difficult for governments in both Berlin and Jerusalem, is in a light-hearted mood. He is standing between an Israeli government official and a German executive from ThyssenKrupp. The executive is smiling as Ganor sets his hand jovially on the man's shoulder – and then the contract on the delivery of German warships to Israel is signed. The scene is documented in a picture taken in May 2015. Ganor, ThyssenKrupp's representative in Israel, is the man in the shadows, the orchestrator of an arms deal that has far-reaching, international importance. That is the message of the photo.
Today, the governments in both Jerusalem and Berlin wish that Ganor, now 66, had never managed to find his way into the picture. Since early summer, the lobbyist has been in special detention because he is suspected of having paid large bribes to high-ranking government officials in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to ensure that the arms deal went ahead, including to the former head of the Navy. A cousin of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also among those suspected of wrongdoing. More than half a dozen people have already spent some time in detention. The deal in question involves the purchase of German warships and submarines, it involves more than 2 billion euros and it involves the security of the Israeli state. The affair leads directly to the heart of the German-Israeli relationship, one that is a key to Germany's understanding of its role in the world, and it is weighing on the relationship between the two countries.
The case doesn't just put Netanyahu, whose role in the affair isn't entirely clear, in a tight spot. It also plunges the German government into a dilemma. Berlin subsidized the arms export deals to the tune of 700 million euros, but can the German government allow an arms deal to go through despite the apparent payment of large bribes? How does the Chancellery intend to explain that German taxpayer money ended up in the pockets of people close to Netanyahu? How much bribery, in other words, can the German-Israeli relationship withstand?
Officially, Germany Is Unaware that Israel Arms the Submarines with Nuclear Weapons
The relationship between Israel, a country that provided a home to Holocaust victims, and Germany, the country of National-Socialist perpetrators, has always been a special one, and that also extends to arms exports. Israel's security is "part of Germany's raison d'être," German Chancellor Angela Merkel, of the center-right Christian Democrats, promised in an emotional speech to Israeli parliament in March 2008. "Israel's security is nonnegotiable for me as chancellor," Merkel said. Her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), had a similar view. With respect to arms exports, he said, "I want to state very clearly: Israel will get what it needs for the preservation of its security."
This unconditional solidarity has been tested occasionally by political differences – on settlement policy, for example, or on the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. But the delivery of heavy weaponry continued apace, no matter how deep the grievances between the two governments were. The Chancellery, however, has long been eager to keep the arms deliveries out of the public eye to the degree possible – for fear that voters would be opposed to exporting German weapons to one of the most volatile regions of the world.
That, in fact, is the greatest danger presented by the current corruption affair: that it could dissolve the quiet consensus of the Berlin elite and call into question Germany's unconditional solidarity with Israel.
Because Germany isn't just delivering conventional military supplies, but water-born, precision weapons that would play a decisive role in the case of nuclear war: Dolphin-class submarines, produced in the Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft in Kiel, a shipyard which belongs to ThyssenKrupp, which is listed on Germany's DAX blue chip stock index.
The vessels aren't just extremely quiet and agile, allowing them to operate in the shallows of Mediterranean coastal waters and of the Persian Gulf. They also carry an open secret: The Israelis arm them with nuclear weapons.
For the Israeli state, the submarines serve as a kind of life-insurance policy. They guarantee a so-called second-strike capability, the ability to strike back following a nuclear attack or a devastating conventional attack. The warships "guarantee that the enemy doesn't feel tempted to launch a preventative strike with nonconventional weapons and go unpunished," says Israeli Admiral Avraham Bozer. And the former commander of the Israeli Navy, Ami Ayalon, says: "For our country, the purchase of the submarines was the most important strategic decision." No other country would have been as obliging as Germany when it comes to this delicate issue.
On Jan. 30, 1991, shortly after the start of the Gulf War, the German government, then under the leadership of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, promised the delivery of the first two submarines, which were paid for entirely by Germany. The contract for vessel number three was signed in early 1995. Schröder's government, a coalition of the SPD and Green Party, authorized the export of Dolphins number four and five in 2005. Officially, the Chancellery still claims ignorance regarding the nuclear modifications undertaken by Israel.
The fact that the deals rarely hit the headlines is also due to Israeli national hero Shaike Bareket, a highly decorated veteran of the Israeli Air Force. He operated as a representative for ThyssenKrupp starting in 1991 and commuted regularly between the two countries.