Israel Defense Forces/Neil Cohen
- Israel may be about to export its workhorse Merkava tank for the first time.
- Reports say Israel is in talks to sell the tank to a European and a Middle Eastern country.
- If exported widely, the tank could refill arsenals in countries that sent their armor to Ukraine.
Israel may be about to export its Merkava tank for the first time. One customer may be an Arab country. Another could be a European nation at odds with Turkey.
For now, the details are cryptic. “There are two potential countries with which we are holding advanced negotiations,” Yair Koles, a retired brigadier general who heads the defense export division of Israel’s Ministry of Defense, told business publication Calcalist. “I am not allowed to give the names, but one of them is on the European continent.”
The European nation in question is actually Cyprus, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which in June cited an unnamed Cypriot official who said negotiations are underway. The Arab nation is Morocco, Spanish outlet El Espanol reported this month.
Israel isn’t selling the newest version of the 45-year-old Merkava tank family, the Merkava 5, or even the Merkava 4, which is used in front-line Israeli armored units. Instead, buyers would get surplus Merkava 2s manufactured in the 1980s and Merkava 3s from the 1990s.
An Israeli Merkava tank in the Negev desert in November 1997.
Antoine GYORI/Sygma via Getty Images
First deployed in 1979, the Merkava is an unusual tank configured to meet Israel’s specific needs. After Israeli tanks suffered heavy losses in the 1973 October War, the casualty-sensitive Israel Defense Forces designed the Merkava (“chariot” in Hebrew) to protect the crew.
The 65-ton vehicle has the engine in the front of the hull to maximize protection and is equipped with the Trophy active protection system to shoot down incoming anti-tank projectiles. There is also an armored compartment in the rear to carry six infantrymen or evacuate casualties.
The Merkava 3, 4, and 5 are armed with a powerful 120 mm cannon, though the Merkava 1 and 2 have smaller 105 mm guns. The tanks also have a 60 mm remotely operated mortar to engage infantry or fire smoke rounds.
The Merkava successfully engaged Syria’s Soviet-made T-72 tanks in the 1982 Lebanon War. However, dozens of earlier Merkava models were damaged by Hezbollah anti-tank missiles in the 2006 Lebanon War, though the problem may have been with poorly trained Israeli crews as well as poor tactics.
An Israeli Merkava Mark IV tank equipped with the Trophy active protection system in February 2007.
Israel Defense Forces/Michael Shvadron
Though Israel is small, home to less than 10 million people, it’s one of the world’s top 10 arms exporters. Remarkably, of Israel’s nearly $13 billion in arms exports in 2022, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco — the Arab nations that signed the 2020 Abraham Accords normalizing relations with Israel — accounted for 24%, according to Israeli government figures.
Most of what Israel sells is smaller items, predominantly drones, missiles, and air-defense systems. Morocco, for example, has bought Israeli Heron surveillance UAVs and Harop kamikaze drones. The US Army uses the Trophy system to protect M1 Abrams tanks from anti-tank rockets. But a main battle tank like the Merkava? That’s something else entirely.
“The Merkava is significant because it’s a high-profile system,” Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told Insider. “It’s not something you just put on an airplane or an armored vehicle. You can’t hide it.”
Exporting the Merkava raises sensitive political issues. For Morocco, acquiring an Israeli tank would be a highly visible symbol of its relatively cordial relationship with Israel. Morocco is also fighting Polisario insurgents, who are backed by neighboring Algeria, in the Western Sahara. This raises the possibility of one Arab state employing Israeli arms against another.
Israeli soldiers by a Merkava tank during an exercise in July 2018.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images
With Cyprus, Israel would be selling tanks to a nation that has tense relations with Turkey, which invaded the northern half of Cyprus in 1974. Relations between Israel and the government of Turkish President Recep Erdogan are often contentious. (The US ending its longstanding arms embargo on Cyprus in 2022 also triggered speculation that Cyprus’ Russian-made arms could go to Ukraine.)
Nonetheless, the timing is propitious for Israel. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has spurred Europe to rearm its depleted militaries. Eastern European nations are sending many of their aging Soviet- and Russian-designed tanks to the Ukrainians, which means the donors will be shopping for affordable replacements — likely older tanks with a non-Russian design.
The question is whether Israel will sell Merkavas to Ukraine. For now, the answer is no. Israel is wary of antagonizing Russia, for fear that Russian forces in Syria will interfere with Israel’s airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets there. Russia can also send advanced weapons, particularly S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, to Israel’s arch-enemy, Iran.
However, weapons also have a habit of circulating. Ukraine has received weapons and other military equipment from nearly 50 countries that originally acquired that hardware for their own armies. Russia is also getting kamikaze drones and artillery shells from Iran and North Korea. If Merkava tanks are sold overseas, they may yet end up on surprising battlefields.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.