BERLIN - Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Israel on Monday with her full cabinet as part of the German-Israel government consultation meetings. Her second term (2009-2013) filled the “special relationship” with a mixed bag of bitter disappointments and encouraging security commitments for Israel. If past is prologue, Merkel’s third term will lead to her to impose the same policy of sticks and carrots on Israel.
Merkel famously declared in her 2008 Knesset speech that Israel’s security interests are integral to those of Germany. In short, she said Israel’s security is “non-negotiable” for her administration. German commentators write obsessively about the semantic interpretation of Merkel’s assurance that Israel is part of her country’s raison d’être.
Israel expects a marriage made in preserving its security. What animates Israel is transforming Merkel’s lofty rhetoric into actions. After all, security is a fighting word for Israel because of its jingoistic enemies in the Middle East.
From Israel’s perspective, Merkel engaged in a kind of “War of the Roses” marital dispute in the diplomatic realm. Her government abstained during the UN vote to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization as a non-observer member state. In sharp contrast, Canada and the Czech Republic--countries that do not invoke the raison d’être language of Germany --rejected the PLO bid.
Her government has shown no resistance to labeling products from the disputed West Bank and Golan territories. Merkel did not contest the EU policy to outlaw funds for Israeli academic institutions beyond the Green Line.
Jerusalem Post diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon broke the story last year that the Federal Republic stymied Israel’s efforts to secure a seat on the UN Security Council, because Germany wanted the post. The spat triggered scores of articles. An Israeli official said at the time, “There is not the same kind of attention and sensitivity to Israel’s battle for international legitimacy” from Germany’s government.
All of this helps to explain why Der Spiegel titled its article last week “Tensions flare in German-Israeli relations.” The Der Spiegel article underscored the tight-lipped Israeli-German relationship: only anonymous sources were quoted. For example, Israeli government sources said the “special relationship” means that Germany allies itself with Israel in moments of doubt.
Put simply, think of the administration of Canada’s Stephen Harper and his pro-Israel policies. Whereas Canada declined to publicly chastise Israel’s settlement policies, Merkel’s government has worked to rebuke Israel in its official discourse and at the UN.
According to Der Spiegel, an unnamed source in Merkel’s Chancellery said, “It is precisely because we are committed to the future of Israel as a Jewish state that we will remain so firm on this point.”
But for Israel this is the flip side of the dangers of the special relationship, where Germany serves as a schoolmaster about to crack the whip when Israel allegedly transgresses. In other words, to paraphrase writer Wolfgang Pohrt, Germany’s hubris culminates in Germans acting as Israel’s probation officers to prevent “their victims” from relapsing.
It is a cynical view, but it captures the actions of many German politicians who invoke working through the history of the Holocaust to show--in obnoxiously didactic terms -- what Israelis ought to do in the conflict with the Palestinians.
Putting aside the marital friction, Merkel has continued the delivery of second-strike nuclear-capable submarines to Israel. The highly sophisticated submarines are vital for Israel’s defense. She has gone to great lengths to defend Israel’s right to counterstrike in Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar of Defense. Intelligence sharing is at all time high between the two governments.
Public and media discourse remain highly critical of Israel. With few exceptions, such as the pro-Israel deputy from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union Party, Philipp Missfelder, there are scarcely any German deputies who aim to counter the anti-Israel mood. Missfelder called for a full ban of Hezbollah as a terrorist entity. Merkel’s administration considers only Hezbollah’s military wing to be a terrorist organization.
Sacha Stawski, the head of the organization “I like Israel” in Germany, told The Jerusalem Post that “German-Israel relations are multifold. Clearly the message Chancellor Merkel is sending by taking her entire cabinet to Israel is that these two democracies have things in common on all levels of the legislature, far beyond just the slogans the public is being fed in the mainstream media day in day out. Business, science, technology, environment, education culture, etc.--much more than just politics.”
However, he added, “Merkel’s coalition partner, the Social Democrats, have in recent years made headlines a number of times by associating themselves with the Fatah organization and speaking of ‘common goals.’ A number of Bundestag resolutions highly critical of Israel passed the Bundestag.”
The tone against Israel in the media has also become raw over the last few years. Writing last week in large daily Die Welt, a paper considered to be sympathetic to Israel, Jacques Schuster termed Israel’s behavior in the settlements to be “criminal.”
Prominent media lawyer Nathan Gelbart, a veteran observer of German-Israel relations and the head of Keren Hayesod in Germany, told the Post that Schuster’s comment “reached a journalistic low-point.” Gelbart said Schuster’s anti-Israel language is shocking because it contradicts the pro-Israel philosophy of the late Dr. Axel Springer, the founder of the Springer publishing house that prints Die Welt. He added that Schuster’s view is voiced by extremist left-wing anti-Zionist newspapers such as Junge Welt.
The German-Israeli “special relationship” is still in its infancy and growing pains will continue. Merkel is a skilled politician and has internalized many of Israel’s core security needs. There is no sign of a divorce.
Benjamin Weinthal reports on Europe for The Jerusalem Post and is a fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.