A major $3.5 billion arms deal, the largest in Israeli history, has taken German-Israeli relations to a new level. The German Bundestag voted to approve this purchase in June and it now has official American approval, which is required as the deal involves the joint US-Israeli Arrow-3 missile defense system. This comes at a time when Israel is exporting more and more weapons to European powers, profiting handsomely from the Ukraine crisis, while being ever more brutal to the millions of Palestinians whose lives it controls.
What does this reveal about the German-Israeli relationship? Israeli Jews have understandably always had mixed emotions about the nation that spawned the Nazi regime. This is not helped when antisemitic events still take place in Germany at a rate of seven incidents a day, according to one organization. Successive German leaderships have long attempted to establish a firm and lasting alliance with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week summed it up with one of his trademark soundbites: “Seventy-five years ago, the Jewish people were ground to dust on the soil of Nazi Germany. Seventy-five years later, (Israel) gives Germany – a different Germany – the tools to defend itself.”
The issue of the Holocaust haunts the relationship. As recently as 2018, then-German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas stated that “it’s because of Auschwitz that I chose to go into politics.” This arms deal is just the latest step toward ever closer links. The German-Israel military relationship is a two-way affair. Israel has long sought to purchase German arms, and vice versa. Israeli strategists have always understood the long-term value of binding major nations to Israel’s future and how military and security cooperation serves that purpose. If Germany benefits from a military partnership with Israel, then it becomes so much harder to speak out about the appalling Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Germany does criticize Israel, not least over settlements, but it refuses to take meaningful action.
German nervousness on this issue was highlighted when its antisemitism commissioner, Felix Klein, this month claimed that accusing Israel of running an apartheid regime was antisemitic. This is despite the near-consensus in the human rights and development community that apartheid is exactly what Israel is guilty of. Nothing has been said in Germany or elsewhere about the failure to tackle this discrimination and the shocking levels of racism shown toward Palestinians. What will this deal do for Germany? The Arrow system should be operational by the end of 2025. Its key selling points are that it is hypersonic and can intercept a missile outside the Earth’s atmosphere. It can defend against both conventional and nonconventional missiles.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine ripped up the global arms scene. Before this, Germany had delayed plans to purchase an anti-ballistic missile system. It preferred to invest in anti-drone systems. Russia’s actions have totally altered the threat perception for countries like Germany. Funds have become available that were not in previous budgets. The Russian leadership will not be happy with Israel for making such a deal. Israel will argue that these are defensive weapons. Israeli anti-drone radars have even been deployed in Ukraine courtesy of Lithuania, although Tel Aviv has refused to provide any direct support. While Russian President Vladimir Putin has always had a strong relationship with Netanyahu, he may well alter his stance. Israel has tried to keep its distance from the Ukraine crisis for fear that Russia could make Israeli military attacks on Syria more challenging. Israel regularly strikes targets deep inside Syria, typically claiming that these attacks are designed to thwart Hezbollah’s attempts to secure advanced weaponry.
The Israeli arms industry is enjoying a boom period, again largely as a result of Ukraine. Last year was a record year for the Israeli defense industry, with $12.5 billion of exports, about 30 percent of which involved sales to European states. Other countries in Europe are increasing their defense spending, not just Germany. The Eastern European, Baltic and Black Sea states are willing customers, building up a deterrence against Russian threats. Hungary is also constructing drones in a joint project with Israel and Germany. Israeli leaders are not seemingly worried by the antisemitic record of Viktor Orban, the Hungarian leader. Meanwhile, German and other leaders are not alarmed that many Israeli weapons systems, including cyber weapons, are continually tested on Palestinians. Poland is buying hundreds of Israeli-made anti-tank missiles. Denmark has agreed to buy Israeli artillery systems in a $256 million deal largely because it had donated its existing stock to Ukraine. Romania is on the cusp of purchasing 32 F-35 lightning jets in a major $6.5 billion deal, becoming just the third Eastern European power to adopt the American plane. As a Black Sea power, its nervousness is clearly understandable. Other European powers with deals with Israel include Greece, Italy, Estonia, the UK and Sweden. The US will be delighted to see NATO allies stepping up their defense spending. The US is pushing anti-missile defense regarding Russia, but it is also doing so with both Japan and South Korea as a counter to perceived Chinese and North Korean threats.
Anti-ballistic missile systems are featuring because the constraints on ballistic missile systems have all but disappeared. There is also every chance that anti-missile systems will improve in the years to come in terms of their performance against Russian weapons, given the easy access to missile wrecks in Ukraine that can be examined. The massive German-Israeli deal shows how realpolitik dominates any sense of moral outrage in times of crisis. The current Israeli far-right coalition, the most right-wing, violent and antidemocratic in its history, will be buoyed by this arms export success and will feel vindicated in its actions. By making such lucrative deals with Israel, European powers, the US and others are exposing their own hypocrisy, where in one conflict international law matters and in another it is ignored. This is all fueled by the illegal Russian invasion and occupation of parts of Ukraine, for which European nations have expressed outrage. For Palestinians, they get concocted outrage at best and little more than tepid press releases.