Germany’s ministers of defence and foreign affairs spoke on the issue last week. The deal was a talking point during a visit by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle to Israel after Tel Aviv complained about the deal. Both Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak urged Berlin to freeze the contract out of concern that Egypt’s navy would establish a naval defence platform that could be used against Israel in a future confrontation.
The Israeli politicians reminded Germany of its previous commitment to ensure Israel’s qualitative military superiority and not to export any weapons to states in the region that might threaten Israel’s interests. Germany’s response, which many Israeli newspapers highlighted, was that Germany remained committed to the deal it had signed with Egypt and thus must make the delivery, adding that no one could interfere in German policy regarding such deals.
Egyptian experts agreed that the deal is significant, irrespective of qualitative superiority. Egypt today needs to diversify its weapons sources, according to security expert Major General Sameh Seif El-Yazel, who explained that the 902-Class submarine had fewer capabilities than the Dolphin-Class subs that Israel had received from Germany within the past decade.
Israel reportedly has an agreement with Germany for the new Dolphin-Class submarine, the Tanin, considered the most expensive and efficient sub in the world. According to the agreement, delivery is expected by the end of 2013. Over the past decade, Israel received the same type of submarine from manufacturer HDW, which exclusively manufactures this type of world-renowned submarine.
These submarines can carry Popeye SLCM missiles manufactured by Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, which carry nuclear warheads weighing up to 200kg manufactured at Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor. The submarine was manufactured in secret in Germany upon Israel’s request with an additional four torpedo tubes for missiles that can hit targets on the ground.
Major General Gamal Mazloum, military expert at the Naif Arab University for Security Sciences in Riyadh, explained that this was not the first time that Israel had tried to block a weapons transfer to Egypt and that Germany was not the only weapons supplier that Tel Aviv had tried to dissuade. Israel had succeeded in stopping dozens of deals with Washington and others in the past, he noted.
Another military expert, Safwat El-Zayyat agreed, adding that Israel had better luck receiving custom-built German subs that could be modified quickly to carry nuclear missiles, have special storage capacity and can run on diesel fuel.
German Defence Minister Thomas de Mesar also rejected Israeli interference in the deal. "No country in the world has the right to veto the decisions of the German government," de Mesar declared, in a clear message to Israel. Although he added that "there is a possibility of Germany supplying," which was not a confirmation of delivery since Cairo has to meet the conditions of the deal. Thus, a commitment by both sides would make the deal a success despite Israel's objections.
Meanwhile, Israel is monitoring developments in Egypt’s navy – and perhaps other branches of the military – according to Mazloum. The problem is that Egypt's development strategies must quickly expand to production, even if it is less than the required efficiency, because it would still be strategically significant, like Iran’s naval industries.
"When there are nearly 200,000 tanks in the Arab region that need routine maintenance and would take us 200 years to keep running using the current mechanism, we will waste a lot of money on deals that Israel will always try interfere with and thwart," he argued. "It does this not on the basis of defence superiority, as it claims, but also to exercise political blackmail to receive grants. It is now blackmailing Germany to receive submarines for free or for little money, or blackmailing Washington for other weapons deals."
Mazloum continued: "Why does Tel Aviv claim that Egypt’s navy is a threat to Israel when it is already qualitatively superior? This is clear blackmail. Our coastline is 30 times longer than Israel, so naturally we should expand our capabilities to cover this size. The job of the naval forces includes protecting more than 2,000km of coastline on the Mediterranean and Red Sea, as well as protecting navigation in the Suez Canal."
Jacky Khoury, an Arab reporter at Israel daily Haaretz, said in exclusive statements that Israel was certainly disturbed by the situation in general because it would change its perception of the strategic and arms balance, since it wants to maintain permanent superiority. Khoury added that, although the issue had received a lot of political attention in Tel Aviv, it had not made headlines in the media, which always focuses on Egyptian matters, such as the domestic scene and developments in Sinai.
According to published weapons reports, Israel is most concerned that, along with the submarine deal, Egypt’s navy has four sophisticated US-made FMC missile boats each weighing 800 tonnes. These boats can travel for long distances and have advanced offensive and defensive capabilities. Egypt also has four Romeo-Class submarines, which are a Sino-Russian prototype that Egypt has modified, adding Harpoon missiles and developed their radar and sonar systems.
Although Egypt’s navy is the smallest of the country’s military branches, it is three time as large as Israel’s – at least in terms of numbers. An expert on Israeli affairs said that that, despite Tel Aviv’s apparent superiority in quality, several Israeli estimates assert that Egypt is strategically far superior. The expert noted that the fate of the deal would ultimately be decided once the final delivery date is announced, since no one can be sure that Berlin will keep its word – especially since Israel is not likely to back down from trying to thwart it.
In the meantime, the deal appears to be being held hostage to political circumstances. Conditions in Egypt today are different; how long will weapons supplies to Egypt remain acceptable to major world powers in light of a civilian regime and a president with an Islamist background? How will the relationship between civilians and the military brass be a decider on armament issues? And how successful will Israel be in exporting its perspective on relations with Egypt to its allies around the world?