Analysis: Germany’s erratic course with Israel

Making sense of why zigzagging by Merkel frustrates policy-makers in DC, Jerusalem.

February 6, 2011 23:15
Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel 521. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

BERLIN – The social and political unrest unfolding in Egypt overshadowed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit last week to Israel. While in Israel as part of a joint German- Israeli cabinet session, she backpedaled from a new round of Iran sanctions.

“We must see whether further sanctions are necessary,” said the chancellor. During speeches to the Knesset in 2008 and the US Congress in 2009, Merkel stressed that her administration would not accept a nuclear-armed Iran and that Israel’s security is “nonnegotiable.”

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In her comments in Israel, Merkel seemed to make her desire to implement new sanctions contingent on whether Russia and China would join a new round. Last year, however, she talked about sanctions independent of Russia and China as part of a “coalition of the willing.” Her zigzag Iran course has irritated the Americans and Israelis.

US frustration with Merkel and her foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, seems to have reached a breaking point this week. Germany’s recalcitrant position about shutting down Iran’s main financial conduit in Europe – the Hamburg- based European-Iranian Trade Bank (EIH) – prompted a bipartisan group of US senators on February 1 to issue a strongly worded letter to Westerwelle.

“We write to express our grave concern with the continued financial support of Iran’s nuclear proliferation activity by European-Iranian Trade Bank in Hamburg and urge the German government to take immediate action to end these practices,” 11 senators wrote.

The bipartisan letter was signed by the following senators: Frank R. Lautenberg (DNew Jersey), Mike Johanns (RNebraska), Barbara Boxer (DCalifornia), Bob Casey (DPennsylvania), Scott Brown (RMassachusetts), Al Franken (DMinnesota), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), Jon Kyl (R-Arizona), Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut), and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas).

While the tone of the letter noted that Germany shares the concerns of the international community about Iran’s human rights violations, nuclear program, and support for terrorism, the senators ratcheted up the language by saying, “Yet, the continued operation of EIH allows the Iranian regime to skirt the sanctions and undercut their effectiveness.”

Flourishing German-Iranian trade relations, particularly Merkel’s refusal to close the EIH, remain a vexing problem for the Israeli government.

According to a Thursday Reuters news item, “The State Bank of India (SBI) will organize the payments, which will be in euros, with German bank EIH, the source said on condition of anonymity.”

The article noted that “SBI has got [assurance] from the highest levels of the government to deal with EIH. There is a backlog of around $2 billion in payments.”

The Israeli Embassy in Berlin has closely followed the recent transaction and repeatedly urged the German government to act against EIH.

The EIH also plays a key role for processing commercial transactions for many German businesses active in Iran. Critics charge that Merkel and the Economics Ministry are relegating Israel’s security to a secondary status in order to not alienate their mid and small-level business constituency, a key voting block for Merkel’s coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party.

The processing of the India gas payments by EIH is precisely what troubles Israeli and American politicians and security officials. The revenues from the EIH transactions can be used by Iran to advance its nuclear weapons program and finance terror entities like Hamas and Hizbullah.

The topic of settlement construction and the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks also played a role during Merkel’s two-day visit to Israel.

While the headlines of German newspapers were filled with saturation coverage of Egyptian protesters seeking to dislodge the Mubarak government, the conservative daily Die Welt published a lead commentary from editorial writer Torsten Krauel on its front page Tuesday sharply criticizing Merkel for her skewed and erratic policies toward Israel.

Krauel’s article – “Merkel’s Middle East Policies Encourage Extremists” – classified Merkel’s fixation on pushing Israel to unilaterally end settlement construction around Jerusalem at a time of massive upheaval in the Arab world as misguided.

He wrote that Merkel’s tone during her visit to Israel implies that “these settlements are the only remaining obstacle on the track to a quick Middle East peace. For this reason, the Chancellor makes a big mistake.”

Krauel, who was the Die Welt correspondent in Washington and is a now a top editor for German politics at the paper, views Merkel’s current foreign policy posture toward Israel as flawed, largely because her policy will result in no security concessions from the Arab side for the Jewish state. He cites Israel’s withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza as telling examples of Israeli cooperation, which were met with radical Islamic absorption of those areas and rocket attacks on Israel’s southern and northern borders.

His commentary represents, with few exceptions, a kind of journalistic anomaly within the mainstream German media and think tank landscape. The Mideast departure point among most German journalists and think tanks like the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, which serves as the main foreign policy adviser to the German government, has been the advocating of a peace agreement with the Palestinians as the sine quo nun of regional stability.

The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and ordinary workingclass Egyptian efforts to democratize their political system have swiftly debunked Germany’s model of prioritizing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal over resolving the problems of the Iranian threat, authoritarian Arab governments, Hamas control of Gaza, and the rise of Hizbullah as the kingmaker in Lebanese politics.

All of this helps to explain Krauel’s deconstruction of Merkel’s flawed insistence that Israel embrace straight away the current opportunity to nail an agreement with the Palestinians and end construction of Israeli apartments in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Merkel’s policies toward Israeli security and Mideast stability depends on how much her administration views Israel’s national security being integral to Germany’s national security.

In stark contrast to America’s understanding of Israeli security, German rhetoric and Merkel’s erratic actions lack the same level of policy application and have led to expressions of rising frustration from US and Israeli officials, politicians and diplomats.

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