Few headlines succinctly capture the remarkable journey of Israel and the Jewish people over the past 75 years better than this one from Reuters last week: “Germany moves ahead with plans to buy Israel’s Arrow-3 missile defense for €4 billion.”
When viewed within the context of recent history, this headline is astounding on many different levels.
First, the Jewish people survived the Holocaust. Second, it established a state after the Holocaust. And third, this state – once so desperate for arms that it agreed to take them from West Germany in 1958 despite fierce internal opposition to the idea on moral grounds – is now able to sell state-of-the-art weaponry to Germany.
And it is doing so without any significant internal debate about whether it is seemly for the Jewish state to provide weapons to Germany, a nation that only three generations ago was responsible for the murder of more than one-third of the Jewish people.
Yes, Israel has long been at peace with the idea of buying weapons from Germany, including nuclear-capable submarines, considered a key component to ensuring the country’s physical survival.
But selling cutting-edge systems to Germany with this price tag? It is one thing to buy arms from Berlin for self-defense; it is another thing to sell it weapons.
True, Israel has sold weapons to Germany in the past. But nothing this cutting-edge nor carrying this price tag. This sale – which took a major leap forward on Wednesday when the Bundestag approved an advanced payment of €560 million for the deal – is unprecedented.
Talk about a reversal of fortunes.
And the reversal of fortunes reflected in this sale does not only have to do with Israel-Germany ties. It is much broader than that.
This reversal of fortune also reflects the distance that Israel has traveled as a country. Not that long ago, the main thing it had to offer the world was Jaffa oranges, a revolutionary depilating device called Epilady, and the Uzi submachine gun. Today, it provides missiles that shoot down other missiles in the stratosphere, software that drives industries, and is on the cusp of exporting natural gas to European countries looking to reduce their dependence on Russian oil.
THE DEFENSE MINISTRY reported this week that Israel’s defense exports soared to a record $12.5b. in 2022, up an astounding 400% from the scope of the sales at the turn of the century and up some 120% over the last 15 years.
The Arrow sale is the third of several mega-sales to European countries in two months, following the announcement of the sale of the David Sling missile defense system to Finland and the PULS artillery rocket launcher to the Netherlands.
According to ministry statistics, 29% of the 2022 weapons sales went to Europe, and fully 24% of the sales went to Abraham Accords countries – the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco (in 2021 the Abraham Accords countries accounted for only 7% of Israel’s arms sales).
Why is Israel's sale of the Arrow-3 crucial?
These sales are important to Israel for two main reasons. First, they strengthen bilateral ties. If Israel is providing a country with weapons that keep it safe, that country – for instance, Azerbaijan or India, which have emerged as key markets for Israeli arms – will relate to Israel in a fundamentally different way than if there were no arms sales in the relationship. This is only natural. Countries, like people, relate to and treat those they need differently than those they do not.
The second reason these sales are so critical for Israel is that they make it possible for the country to conduct the research and development to produce the weapons it needs for its own survival. The primary purpose of Israel’s weapons industry is to create weapons needed for the Israeli army. Some of these arms must be tailor-made for Israel’s unique circumstances; others, Israel simply cannot get elsewhere.
Amos Yaron, a former director-general of the ministry, explained at a conference last year that Israel needs to export 70% of the weapons and systems it manufactures to pay for the research, development and production of the weapons it needs for its own survival.
THE NET RESULT is that Israel’s ability to give countries around the world things they need – from weapons systems to irrigation expertise to medical innovations to lifesaving intel – necessarily increases its utility to the world.
And this utility to the world explains the explosion in Israel’s diplomatic ties over the last 15 years. From India to the UAE, from Greece to Rwanda, Israel’s diplomatic situation has improved, corresponding to an appreciation of the tangibles Israel brings to the table.
For instance, does anyone think the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco would have signed agreements with Israel if the Jewish state could not provide what they need?
Mark Regev, a former ambassador to Britain and currently the chairman of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University, said it is undoubtable that arms sales, business deals, technological cooperation and intelligence sharing have all had a significant impact on improving Israel’s standing around the world.
“In the past when Israel spoke to Europe,” Regev said, “it spoke about common values and democracy – ‘we are part of you, you are part of us.’” But, he added, that values-based talk only had a limited appeal when the Europeans had “very real commercial interests in the Arab countries.”
The best example of this was during the Yom Kippur War. “Israel is attacked, but because of the oil embargo, the Americans could not get a single country to allow them to refuel planes on the way to Israel – Britain refused – and in the end, they landed at the Azores, which is under Portuguese sovereignty,” Regev said. “The NATO allies refused.”
Why? Because economic interests trumped common values.
Today, Regev continues, “we still have the common values, but it is nice that we also have tangible advantages as well.”
In addition to natural gas, which Israel hopes eventually to export to Europe, Regev said that Israeli hi-tech is increasingly critical to European economies, and that the war in Ukraine has hammered home to numerous European countries the need for strong military defense.
This, Regev said, has increased Israel’s value and thereby its stature in Europe. “What they get from Israel are technologies that work because we have [battle] tested them, and they are also getting it from an ally and a friend. In some cases, there is no good substitute for Israeli technology.”
Asked whether he thought that the Europeans had muted their criticism of Israel over the last decade because of a heightened awareness of Israel’s utility to them, Regev said there had been a perceptible change in tone, and this may be one – but not the only – reason for this change.
In Britain, he said, the main reason for a change in attitude toward Israel was the shifting attitudes of the Gulf countries – significant trading and military partners for Britain and much of Europe – toward Israel. But, it is worth noting, the Gulf states’ attitudes toward Israel changed because of a realization of what they could gain from ties with Israel.
For years, Regev explained, Britain and other key European states were concerned that forging closer relations with Israel would jeopardize their profitable contracts in the Arab world. But when the Gulf states themselves began talking with Israel, even before the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, they realized that there would be no blowback from other Arab countries for improved ties with Israel. Consequently, Israel’s relations with Britain and other European states improved.
EU Ambassador Dimiter Tzantchev – when asked whether an increased reliance among some European countries on Israeli weapons and possibly natural gas is softening criticism inside the EU or changing Israel’s image and status there – emphasized the strong interconnection between the EU and Israel. “We are very much connected, much more than we can imagine,” he said.
“The economic partnerships are very active,” he added, “and researchers from the EU and Israel are in close contact, not to speak of the diplomats. There is a positive change in the attitude because people understand we are interconnected.”
That interconnectedness is something that Israel wants to promote around the world, not only in Europe.
A senior Israeli official intimately involved in the relations with the US said a number of years ago that Israel’s goal was to get so linked with the US as to become almost indispensable.
He explained that this meant getting the business, hi-tech, military, and intelligence communities so interconnected that even if one day a president sat in the White House who was not positively predisposed to Israel and was desirous of reevaluating the relationship, he would be told by business and military leaders that this would be unwise and inimical to American interests because the US would have too much to lose.
An end-of-days scenario? Maybe. But that is also how most people would have responded 80 years ago, had they been told that a Jewish state would one day sell more than $4b. worth of trailblazing military hardware to Germany.