WORLD: General Gerhartz, according to Angela Merkel, Israel’s security is part of Germany’s reason of state. Sounds like a one-way street. Does Israel also contribute to German security?

Ingo Gerhartz: When I took over the Air Force in 2018, my first trip abroad was to Israel to get to know General Norkin and his Air Force. Because of our horrific history, this felt like a historic obligation to me. Israel has the most operational air force in the world, operating in many different scenarios. So we can learn a lot from the Israelis.

Amikam Norkin: We have cooperations with air forces around the world, but none like the one with Germany. In the 70’s almost half of our pilots were Holocaust survivors. Before we took part in an exercise with our F-16s in Germany for the first time four years ago, I asked survivors: should we really do this? You have encouraged me in my decision. We will never forget the past. But we shape the future together.

WORLD: General Norkin, maybe you will see how Germany’s relationship to the military and security policy is changing. What advice can you give your German friends?

Norkin: The challenges in the Middle East and in Europe are very different. But for the air forces there are many similarities. The advice I can give General Gerhartz is how to use your air power to simultaneously identify threats and opportunities. Israel’s air sovereignty in the Middle East is a bridge for regional cooperation. Our cooperation with the air forces of other states in the region is part of regional stability. Our governments can use this bridge. I am sure that Germany can use its abilities in a similar way. Germany does not have to actively use its capabilities to do this; deterrence can also protect its neighbors.

WORLD: Thanks to both of your initiatives, the air forces of both countries have held maneuvers together in recent years. You have just been awarded the Ernst Cramer Medal by the German-Israeli Society for your commitment. Were the joint exercises primarily a political signal? Or would it be conceivable that both air forces would actually go into action together?

Gerhartz: The award of the medal is a great honor for me. I was particularly pleased that, for the first time, two members of the military received awards. We as the armed forces can also make an important contribution to international understanding. Although I was personally honored, I see this award as representative of the people in my Air Force who are part of this close, friendly cooperation. When we say that Israel’s security is a German reason of state, then action must follow. This means that the two air forces must be able to act together. Whether or not they are used is a political decision.

Norkin: Israel does not depend on German support, we can defend ourselves. Israel is a small country. It is only a three-minute flight from the eastern to the western border. Through the cooperation with Germany, we create strategic depth: culturally, economically – and we create acceptance. When the Germans come here, they understand our difficult geostrategic situation.

WORLD: In addition to the military exercises, you both have also organized many social encounters between soldiers from both countries. How did getting to know each other change their respective soldiers?

Norkin: Last year General Gerhartz invited more than 60 young Israeli officers. They visited Germany for a week, learned how the German Air Force trains and what their training looks like. Two years ago, our air forces flew together over Dachau. And then the German Air Force came to Israel and we flew together over Jerusalem. Next week more than 40 German soldiers with their families will be our guests in Israel. We learn from each other professionally, but also about the respective history and culture. In Israel we know a lot about the Holocaust, but not what is happening in Germany today.

WORLD: There is still anti-Semitism in Germany today. How do you deal with this topic at the German-Israeli encounters?

Gerhartz: As a person and as head of the German Air Force, my message is clear: anti-Semitism must not have a place in Germany, in the Air Force! For this it is important that our soldiers get to know and understand the culture of Israel and the Jewish religion. And for that we have to bring people together, that was our common vision from the beginning, which connects us with the work of Ernst Cramer.

WORLD: General Gerhartz, how do you explain that the Israeli armed forces, with less than half the German budget, have a much higher operational readiness than the Bundeswehr?

Gerhartz: You can’t compare these two armed forces, but we can certainly learn something. Israel has a very efficient defense industry. We, on the other hand, have complicated bureaucratic structures. But by doubling the operational readiness of our Eurofighters, we have proven that we can do it too.

Norkin: Two-thirds of Israeli soldiers are conscripts, so they hardly burden our budget. More than half of my pilots are reservists. You can’t compare airplanes with airplanes, you have to take social structures into account. An Israeli reservist can be a teacher or a manager, but he comes to practice every week. I don’t think German society would accept such a system.

WORLD: Germany is considering purchasing the Israeli-American Arrow 3 air defense system. But in the recent standoff with Hamas, Israel’s air defenses have proven far from perfect. A number of rockets penetrated the protective screen. Can your system really protect Germany against large-scale attacks from Russia?

Norkin: In this conflict we only used the Iron Dome system, which is designed to protect against projectiles launched at close range. In ten days of conflict, Hamas and other Palestinian groups fired some 4,500 rockets at Israeli cities. And we caught 90 percent of it. That’s an excellent result at such a short distance. Arrow 3 is the most advanced air defense system in the world. It protects against ballistic missiles launched from thousands of kilometers away. Because the military situation in our region is what it is, our systems are always tried and tested in practice. All of our operational experience flows into its continuous development.

Gerhartz: You actually need different shields against missiles with different ranges. The principle of “one size fits all” does not apply to missile defense. We currently have no answer against attacks with long-range rockets, some of which fly outside the earth’s atmosphere. That is why I have strongly recommended that politicians look at the Arrow 3 system. It’s already being used, and Israel and America are sharing the technology with us. The system also provides protection for our eastern allies against the threat of such missiles.

WORLD: To protect these neighbors, German Air Force pilots are currently flying patrols over Poland and Romania, and soon over the Baltic States. They come dangerously close to Russian fighter jets. Can you learn anything from the Israeli “deconfliction,” the coordination with Russian authorities to avoid accidental collisions in the air over Syria?

Gerhartz: We already practiced deconfliction with the Russian air force when we flew over Syria and Iraq as part of the international anti-IS mission. There was always a so-called red telephone, which we had to use here and there. Recently, when Russian military planes came very close to the island of Rügen, Luftwaffe Eurofighters took off to show clearly where the limits are. This requires a high level of professionalism from our pilots, they must not allow themselves to be provoked and must act prudently. I have complete confidence in my pilots.

WORLD: What advice would you give Germany for dealing with Russia, General Norkin?

Norkin: For us there were always only enemies and friends, but the Germans are familiar with it when you have a mixture of both in the neighborhood. By the way, we don’t do any deconfliction at all. We don’t coordinate with the Russians. We only take certain security measures, for example to avoid accidentally shooting down a Russian plane like the Turks did in 2015. But for our security measures, we learned a lot from the Germans and NATO. Because they are familiar with a multicultural environment.

WORLD: Former concentration camp prisoners observed the commemorative flight over Dachau on the ground. How can the historical background of this brotherhood in arms be conveyed to the next generation when there are no contemporary witnesses left?

Gerhartz: If you ask me about this day, the emotions come back. I will never forget that General Norkin invited me to sit next to him on the plane while we flew over the former Dachau concentration camp. After I said the words “le-olam lo od,” “never again” in Hebrew, at the memorial service, many people came up to me and said how important it was to them. We must not forget our history. This is exactly why we also do the exchange programs and family get-togethers. A group of Israeli non-commissioned officers is in Germany at the moment. As part of this visit, we named the lecture hall building of our non-commissioned officer school after Karl Laabs, a Wehrmacht Luftwaffe sergeant who saved the lives of more than 100 Jews. With this we want to ensure that our young soldiers deal with the Holocaust and that the terrible crime of the Shoah is not forgotten.

Norkin: A few years ago there was a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at one of our bases. An Israeli air force colonel spoke there, already in his 80s, who survived the Holocaust himself, hiding in a hole in the ground as a child for three years. He could hardly believe that there were also soldiers from the German Air Force in the audience, drone pilots who were training with us. Afterwards he said to them: “It is good that you are here. We established the State of Israel and we can defend it. But we can only build a future together.” That’s what it has to be about – building a common future on the basis of remembrance.