German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived Monday with a whopping 16 of her ministers for a meeting being billed as the largest-ever bilateral consultation between Israeli and German governments. This is not just a precursor to next year’s marking of 50 years of relations between Israel and Germany. It is also a gesture of the present German government’s commitment to the Jewish state.
There have been tense moments between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Merkel, but exclusively on a single issue: Israeli policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians. In February 2011, for instance, when Germany voted in favor of a UN Security Council resolution condemning settlements beyond the Green Line, Netanyahu telephoned Merkel to express his disappointment. Merkel responded angrily, according to media reports, “You haven’t made a single step to advance peace.”
In December 2012, Germany’s abstention from a UN General Assembly vote to grant Palestinians “nonmember observer status” further hurt relations.
And just over a week ago, Martin Schulz, German president of the European Parliament, erroneously criticized Israel for creating a situation in which water allotment to Palestinians living in the West Bank was just a quarter of what was provided for Jewish settlers.
In large part, German governments’ opposition to Israeli policies on the West Bank is a reflection of domestic politics.
A recent BBC poll showed that only 14 percent of Germans today had a positive view of Israel.
For their part, many Israeli politicians have taken the liberty of singling out for derision German statements and actions against settlements in Judea and Samaria. In the eyes of many Israelis, Germany’s Holocaust legacy disqualifies the Germans from expressing anything but wholehearted support for whatever policies a given Israeli government chooses to pursue.
The attack on Schulz launched by Netanyahu and Bayit Yehudi head Naftali Bennett, for instance, was undoubtedly fueled by the knowledge that lashing out at a German politician who dared to criticize Israel in the Knesset – and in the German language at that – would be received well by Israelis, who tend to harbor anti-German sentiments. Savvy politicians know that it is politically advantageous to create tension between Berlin and Jerusalem, because it plays well to the local crowd.
Instead of caving in to populism, however, both sides – Israel and Germany – need to tone down the rhetoric and try harder to adopt a clear-eyed view of indisputable realities.
Israeli politicians need to realize that while Germany might be critical of settlements, the country has grappled with its despicable past and has made sincere efforts to do the impossible: make amends for the atrocities of the Holocaust.
After the US, Germany is probably Israel’s greatest ally.
Merkel, sensitive to Israel’s security needs, has continued the delivery of second-strike nuclear-capable submarines. She has gone to great lengths to defend Israel’s right of defense against Gaza-based Hamas aggression in Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar of Defense. Germany is Israel’s third-largest trading partner after the US and China. And German officials have spoken out against boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns.
Germany, meanwhile, should realize that settlements are not the sole or even primary obstacle to peace in the region.
Palestinian intransigence in negotiations, incitement in the media and in schools and refusal to come to terms with a Jewish state are no less central obstacles to peace.
Merkel, as a European leader who truly appreciates Israel’s unique challenges, has an important role in getting this message across to the German public. Instead of being dragged into the populist European approach to the conflict which is hypercritical of Israel, Merkel can present a more nuanced account that includes criticism of the self-destructive dynamics of Palestinian politics as well as settlements.
Indeed, some think that disproportionate criticism of Israel in Europe is sometimes fueled by guilt about the Holocaust.
The best way to expiate oneself of past crimes is by turning the tables and blaming one’s former victims of becoming the new victimizers.
Israelis need to realize that Germany is a true friend, proved yet again by Merkel’s unprecedented gesture of bringing her cabinet to Israel for a government-to-government meeting. Meanwhile, Germans should combat the tendency among Europeans to single out Israel for special criticism