REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- The long reach of Israel's military promises to get a little longer after the government signed an agreement with Germany to purchase an additional submarine.
Israel currently has three Dolphin-class submarines and another two were already on order. Negotiations with Germany for a sixth were on-again, off-again for several years, challenged alternatively by the political and economic climate.
Now the two countries have agreed that Israel may buy the sixth submarine, with Germany helping to finance a third of the whopping $528-million price tag that makes the vessel one of the world's most expensive war machines.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a letter, saying the warship would help Israel meet its "considerable security needs in these stormy times."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak was more specific. He told Israel radio that the purchase strengthens the navy as it increasingly plays a key role in confronting far-away challenges such as Iran as well as closer ones such as defending shipping routes, countering sea-borne terror and arms smuggling, and safeguarding natural gas drilling sites and production platforms off its coasts.
Israel's biggest security challenge, Iran, may not be immediately affected by the new purchase -- which will take years to be delivered -- although it has been speculated submarines could eventually play a part.
However, the overall upgrading of Israel's naval capabilities above and below water is a powerful addition to the capabilities of the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF. Tensions involving Iran's contested nuclear program have long threatened to spill over into the naval arena, with the Iranians threatening to block the strategically critical Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and both Israeli and Iranian vessels at times passing through the Suez Canal.
"The strength of the IDF and the state of Israel, and its operational flexibility, will grow tenfold," navy commander Maj. Gen. Ram Rothberg said at a naval officers graduation ceremony, according to the Israeli military's website.
Cruise missiles from Israeli submarines, with a range of more than 900 miles, could hit any target in Iran, Israeli naval officers have told foreign media. Those submarines, according to reports, can carry missiles with nuclear warheads.
-- Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: In a 1999 file photograph, Israeli sailors stand on their then-new Dolphin-class submarine. Credit: Associated Press