BERLIN – German politicians and the major media have propelled Israel this week into the charged political debate over whether the Merkel administration’s decision to sell 200 tanks to Saudi Arabia conforms with Germany’s military export policies toward the Middle East.

The Munich-based daily Süddeutche Zeitung headlined its Tuesday story “Israel approves tank sale,” suggesting that Israel played the kingmaker role when German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Federal Security Council green-lighted the roughly 1.7 billion euro tank deal to Saudi Arabia in late June. Though the article also noted that the council sought clearance from the United States, Israel has largely remained front and center in German news reports and commentaries about the controversial armaments package.

Israel’s reported role in the council’s calculus to approve the sale of the Leopard 2A7+, Germany’s most advanced battlefield tank, to Riyadh, prompted Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon to say during his recent visit to Berlin, “I am unaware of an upcoming tank deal between Germany and Saudi Arabia.”

In an interview with the daily Die Welt on Thursday, Ayalon was further quoted as saying that “it is in the nature of such matters that one does not speak about them publicly. But I can assure you that we fully and completely trust Germany’s government.”

The Merkel administration has declined to comment on the sale, invoking nondisclosure rules associated with the Federal Security Council’s highly secretive meetings.

According to the thinking of Israeli defense analysts, tanks do not poise a threat to Israel since Saudi Arabia and Israel do not share a border. What ostensibly took place was that Berlin updated Jerusalem, and Israel simply did not say anything.

Israeli defense experts note that the Jewish state has put its foot down when F-15s fighter jets, Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), and Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAMs) were to be sold to the Saudis.

These military systems spell a direct threat to Israel’s security, because F-15 jets can target Israel, AWACS can monitor Israel Air Force operations, and JDAMs can be fired by Saudi Arabian pilots from over the Red Sea and accurately hit targets in Israel using GPS coordinates.

While the German media and politicians attach at times a disproportionate and superfluous amount of attention to Israel, the Saudi tank deal has generated outrage because of Riyadh’s role in suppressing the prodemocracy movement in Bahrain. Leopard 2A7+ tanks are also suited for use in military crowd control actions.

Yet Germany’s shipment of military goods to Saudi Arabia over the years, as well as to Turkey, would seem to suggest that its declared policy of not providing weapons to crisis-ridden states in the volatile Middle East is a mixed bag. According to the Bonn International Center for Conversion (of military facilities and equipment to civilian uses), Germany has over the last 10 years sold 39 million euros worth of weapons to the Saudis. Germany is the world’s third-largest exporter of weapons. A startling 11% of Germany’s military exports were sent to Turkey between 2006 and 2010. Last year, Turkish armed forces were reported to have used chemical weapons against Kurdish insurgents.

The moral uproar over the German-Saudi deal among Social Democrats, the Left Party, the Greens, and even some deputies from parties in Merkel’s coalition, might also strike Israeli observers as odd because of Germany’s role over the years in the sale of dual-use military and civilian goods to the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Bundestag remained largely silent about German-Iranian dual-use deals, including those involving Siemens- Nokia surveillance technology that could be used against Israel.

Within the context of the Saudi-German tank affair, Philipp Missfelder, a foreign policy spokesman for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), said on Thursday in the International Herald Tribune, “Every step that we take in the region we take with the condition that it promotes the security and the right to exist of Israel.”

How Missfelder’s political assurance to Israel squares with his country’s robust trade relations with Tehran (totaling more than 4 billion euros in 2010), including the ongoing sale of sophisticated engineering equipment to Iran, remains a thorny issue for Israel-German relations.

CDU deputy Ruprecht Polenz’s defense of the hosting of legislators from Iran last week in the Bundestag triggered an angry reaction from MK Shaul Mofaz, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, who asserted that Germany is making a mockery of international sanctions against Tehran.

As the WikiLeaks dispatches showed, the Saudis view Iran’s drive to obtain nuclear weapons and its jingoistic foreign policy as the greatest threat to Middle East stability.


It is unclear if Germany’s deal to arm Saudi Arabia with tanks is based on the Iranian threat or on mercantile reasons. A combination of economics and tackling Iran’s highly aggressive foreign policy is also a possible explanation.

But if the past is a guide to Germany’s present behavior in the region, pure economic interests in the Federal Republic usually take priority over human rights in the Muslim world, Israel’s security and stability in the Middle East.

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