To grasp just how far Israeli-German relations have developed since formal diplomatic ties were established 50 years ago on Tuesday, contrast the following.
On August 19, 1965, three months after ties were established with West Germany, Bonn’s emissary Rolf Pauls arrived in Jerusalem to submit his credentials to the president.
Rioting broke out in the streets of Jerusalem, and his car was pelted with rocks and bottles.
Just a few months earlier, in a Knesset debate on whether to formally establish ties, Herut head Menachem Begin, then an opposition MK, said “every German deserves to die... their hands are covered with Jewish blood... Therefore, there is neither absolution nor forgiveness, and no normal relations will ever be possible between us.”
Then-prime minister Levi Eshkol took the opposite position in the Knesset, defending the move and saying that “reason must prevail over sentiment.” He argued that the country “must seize every opportunity we have to fortify the nation in its new homeland.”
Fast-forward 50 years to May 11, 2015 – the day before the jubilee anniversary of formal Israeli-German ties. In a room in the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv festooned with Israeli and German flags, Israeli and German officials sign a contract for the purchase – one-third fully funded by the German government – of four Navy patrol boats at the cost of €430 million that will be used by Israel to secure its offshore natural gas facilities.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, hosting his German counterpart Ursula von der Leyen on an official visit, said at the signing ceremony that “Germany is a great friend of the State of Israel.” The wide-ranging security cooperation between the two countries, he added, “contributes greatly to the power of the State of Israel and to the security of its citizens.”
And nobody batted an eyelash, because such statements are now routine, even taken as a given.
It is taken as a given by many that Germany will provide Israel with critical military hardware at huge discounts, such as six Dolphin-class submarines (four which have already been delivered) believed critical for Israel’s second-strike ability. It is taken as a given that the two governments will meet every year – one year in Jerusalem, the next in Berlin – to discuss ways to deepen the relationship. It is taken as a given that Germany will give Israel diplomatic cover inside the often harshly and unfairly critical EU. It is all taken as a given, because that is the way it has been for so long.
So long, but not forever.
When relations were formally established in 1965, just 20 years after the Holocaust, the wounds were still open and bleeding. Begin’s words in the Knesset were not the rantings of a madman, but reflected the sentiments of hundreds of thousands of people who suffered unspeakably at the hands of the Nazis.
Many then could not have imagined that a half-century hence, Germany – today, unlike in 1965, economically the strongest and arguably the most important country in the EU – would be considered Israel’s closest European friend. This, the same Germany to which many Israelis would never consider taking a vacation, the same Germany whose products many Israelis still are reticent to buy. Such is the paradox in these relations.
Relations between states are based, the theory goes, on interests, not sentiment.
This is true of Israel’s relations with most countries in the world – with China, for instance, and India. Those countries don’t like or deal with Israel because of any particular sentiment toward the Jewish state or the Jews but, rather, because of what Israel has to offer.
But there are two countries – the two countries with whom Israel has a “special relationship” – with whom that relationship is also based heavily on sentiment: the US and Germany.
True, Israel and the US have many common interests. But those interests also rest on a solid bedrock of public, pro-Israel sentiment that has to do with history, shared values, and religious beliefs.
The relationship with Germany is also sentiment-based. Germany feels a special responsibility for Israel’s security because of the Holocaust, a responsibility articulated and felt by all chancellors to varying degrees, but by no one more than current Chancellor Angela Merkel.
This responsibility for Israel’s security, she said during a historic address to the Knesset in 2008, is a critical component of modern Germany.
“Here of all places I want to explicitly stress that every German government and every German chancellor before me has shouldered Germany’s special historical responsibility for Israel’s security,” she said. “This historical responsibility is part of my country’s raison d’être.”
In other words, this commitment to Israel’s security is so great that it has even come to be a part of Germany’s post-World War II identity. It might not always remain so, but it has up until now – and, again, never as fiercely as under the East Germany- raised Merkel.
One diplomatic official in Jerusalem said that Israeli-German ties are not foreign relations in the classic sense of the term.
They are relations based on profound aspects of national identity, especially for the Germans.
The German-Israeli dialogue over the years has been an important part of how the Germans look at themselves. It was also – in the early years – an important entrance card for Germany back into the family of nations.
When Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first post-war chancellor, began their dialogue in the early 1950s that led to the historic reparations agreement signed in 1952, they were looking for different things. Ben-Gurion was looking desperately for money and material to bolster his fledgling state, and Adenauer was motivated both by a sense of moral responsibility and also by the need to gain international legitimacy. Ties with the Jewish state gave Bonn that legitimacy.
Today nobody questions Germany’s legitimacy. Nevertheless, its support for Israel’s security remains stronger than ever, tellingly at a time when more and more voices inside Europe are questioning Israel’s legitimacy.
Germany has proven through concrete actions that its support for Israel is not only lip service, concrete actions such as the signing ceremony Monday for the four naval vessels, and in German diplomatic support for Israel in countless ways in the EU and other international arenas, despite significant policy differences over settlements.
Some may look at Israel’s standing in the EU, scratch their heads and wonder what good Germany’s help is doing diplomatically if Israel’s position inside Europe is currently so tough. To which Israel’s diplomats have a simple answer: Imagine how bad things would look if Israel did not have Germany solidly on its side.