Israel and Cyprus have held talks regarding the sale of Merkava tanks, sources in both countries told Haaretz.
One of the options that was raised during the discussions is that Cyprus will purchase Merkava tanks from Israel and then send older Russian-made tanks to Ukraine. However, Cypriot sources have denied that this is their intent.
Introduced after Israel’s Armored Corps suffered heavy losses against Egypt and Syria in a 1973 war, and with a view to reducing reliance on foreign arms supplies, the Merkava – biblical Hebrew for “chariot” – is now in its fourth generation.
The Merkava Mark III was introduced into service in 1990, and went out of regular use in 2020. The Mark III is equipped with a 120 mm cannon, which is capable of destroying armored targets, including tanks. Previous versions of the tank had 105 mm cannons.
The Mark III can also fire LAHAT antitank missiles, with an operational range about twice as large as the AT-11 Sniper missiles fired by the T-80U tanks currently in use by Cyprus. In the 30 years since the tank model became operational, it underwent several upgrades to its armor and fire-control systems. In 1995, for example, it introduced the BAZ system, which improved its fire control and its target locking while in motion. One critical improvement that was not incorporated widely into Mark III tanks was the Trophy active protection system. The Israeli military preferred to install the Trophy system in the Merkava Mark IV tanks instead.
Last week, Yair Kulas, the head of the Defense Ministry’s export coordination department, said in an interview with the economic daily Calcalist that Israel is in negotiations with two countries, including one in Europe, regarding the sale of older Merkava tanks that are no longer in use by the Israeli army.
If the deal goes through, this would be Israel’s first sale of a Merkava tank to a European country. The Defense Ministry refused to name the country that Kulas was referring to.
After Kulas’ interview, several websites and various accounts on social media claimed that said country is Cyprus. Last year, the Biden administration removed its arms embargo on Cyprus, enabling such a deal.
The Defense Ministry responded by saying that “Due to the war in Europe, several countries have shown interest in buying from Israel’s reserves, including older Merkava tanks that were taken out of service years ago. The negotiations have yet to yield an agreement, and neither the Defense Ministry nor the interested countries have approved.”
An official in Cyprus confirmed to Haaretz that negotiations have been taking place between the two countries, but refused to provide specifics about the deal itself or a timetable for completing it.
Last month, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant visited Cyprus. During a meeting with his Cypriot counterpart Michalis Giorgallas, said that “Cyprus and Israel have significant partnerships in munitions, through bilateral agreements between our governments. We appreciate Israel’s defense industry as a trustworthy partner in our effort to upgrade our security and deterrence.”
Two weeks later, Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides visited Israel and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His visit coincided with May’s Gaza operation, during which Palestinian militants fired rockets at central Israel. During his meeting, Christodoulides emphasized that he chose to visit Israel “despite the terror” in order to discuss shared strategic matters. Later, the two leaders held a phone call during which they agreed to “continue to advance” a matter raised in the meeting. Furthermore, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi visited Nicosia earlier this week.
Earlier this year, several media outlets in the United States and Europe reported that Cyprus had agreed to transfer its older Russian-made tanks to Ukraine, which is desperate for military equipment in light of the Russian invasion and ensuing war, in exchange for newer western tanks.
This may have laid the groundwork for a three-party deal, in which Israeli tanks would replace the older Cypriot ones, and in turn Cyprus would transfer those older tanks to Kyiv. President Christodoulides denied this report earlier this week, adding that his country “will take no action” that would leave it vulnerable to a military threat by Turkey.
John Ioanou, a security analyst and founder of Geopolitical Cyprus, told Haaretz that he believes that the attempt to connect the Israeli-Cypriot negotiations to the war in Ukraine is based on “Russian disinformation on social media.” He added that one of Cyprus’ considerations in buying Israeli weapons is the probable difficulty in attaining spare parts for Russian tanks over the next few years, due both to the Russian military’s operations in Ukraine and international sanctions against Moscow.