Merkel’s party and the Middle East

A leadership race in the CDU party may shape the future of German-Israeli ties

Germany’s CDU Secretary General Paul Ziemiak, Defense Minister and CDU Chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Armin Laschet, federal Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, attend a CDU board meeting in Berlin last year (photo credit: REUTERS)
Germany’s CDU Secretary General Paul Ziemiak, Defense Minister and CDU Chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Armin Laschet, federal Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, attend a CDU board meeting in Berlin last year
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Germany’s governing CDU-party (Christian Democratic Union) of chancellor Angela Merkel is slated to elect a new chairperson. While the three hopefuls competing for the job, Armin Laschet, Friedrich Merz and Norbert Röttgen, share almost interchangeable personal profiles – all are white, Catholic, and fathers with law degrees in their fifties or early sixties from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia – their political positions differ, amongst others, in regard to Israel, the Middle East and the fight against antisemitism.
Unlike a few weeks ago, it seems less clear today whether the next CDU head will also run on the party’s ticket for the position of Germany’s chancellor in the country’s 2021 federal elections. With Angela Merkel’s popularity resurging, due to what is perceived as her successful management of the COVID-19 crisis, some question whether she will stand by her announcement not to run for another term as head of Germany’s government, a position that she has held for almost 15 years now.
In addition, Bavaria’s prime minister, Marcus Söder, who is also the heads the CDU’s Bavarian sister-party, the CSU (Christian Social Union) is currently traded as a possible joint CDU/CSU candidate for the German chancellorship. The two Christian parties traditionally run as a united block in federal elections. However, even if the CDU’s future chairman will not become Germany’s next chancellor, he will still decide if and to which extent the party will support Israeli and Jewish concerns in German and European politics.
Armin Laschet recently appeared as the frontrunner of the competition. The Merkel-ally and prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany’s most populous state) has displayed a warm attitude towards Israel and Germany’s Jewish community throughout his political carrier.
His competitor, Norbert Röttgen, is a different story. The head of the Bundestag’s (Germany’s federal parliament) foreign affairs committee, Röttgen usually makes headlines with critical remarks about the Jewish state and displayed an ambivalent attitude towards the antisemitic BDS-movement that advocates an economic and cultural boycott of Israel.
Friedrich Merz, a former CDU-faction leader in the Bundestag who has taken a break from politics for the past ten years, has no political record when it comes to the Jewish state. But he is the only candidate who has addressed the problem of antisemitism among Germany’s immigrant population. In contrast to Laschet and Röttgen, who share Angela Merkel’s centrist orientation, Merz, an old foe of the current chancellor, has vowed to restore the party’s conservative profile. He promotes a more restrictive stance on migration and wants the CDU to compete for voters from the right-wing AFD party.
In a much-disputed Tweet on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Merz blamed rising antisemitism in Germany, partially, on Angela Merkel’s liberal open-borders-policy during the 2015/2016 refugee crisis. Laschet, dismisses such connections. During an award ceremony last March in Berlin, Laschet said, in what was arguably a response to Merz, that “people, especially among the political right, are quick to says that antisemitism has been brough to Germany by immigration. In fact, it has always been here.”
When Angela Merkel, in her historic 2008-speech to the Knesset, declared that Israel’s security would be part of Germany’s raison d’etat, she seemed to follow in the footsteps of Helmut Kohl and Konrad Adenuer, two former German chancellors and CDU-leaders who established their party as a pro-Israeli influence in Germany’s political system. But critics have disputed the sincerity of Merkel’s words. Germany, under Merkel, remains an important partner of Iran’s antisemitic regime that openly vows to destroy the Jewish state and has done little to prevent its  military entrenchment throughout Iraq and Syria, an undertaking by which the Islamic Republic creates a land corridor for its armed forces to the Israeli border.
Germany has also been accused of mitigating Western pressure on Iran during the negotiations for the disputed 2015 JCPOA-accord to prevent a nuclear armed Iran. Furthermore, in the UN general assembly Germany has often voted with enemies of the Jewish state, supporting anti-Israel resolutions. Even though much of Germany’s foreign policy is determined by the CDU’s Social Democratic Coalition Partner, some observers, like historian Michael Wolffsohn believe that “the times of the unbroken pro-Jewish and pro-Israeli policy that the CDU has stood for under Adenauer and Kohl are long over.”
On a recent visit to Israel, Laschet went to great length to demonstrate his commitment to Adenauer’s pro-Israel heritage. At a symbolic photo-op he posed with the grandchildren of Konrad Adenauer and Israel’s state founder David Ben. In a following press conference, Laschet invoked the legendary 1960 New York meeting between the two leaders that entered history books as the starting point of German Israeli relations. Doubling down on Merkel’s commitment to Israels’ security, he added that Germany’s obligation in this regard would also extend to the security of Jews in Germany that is challenged by a recent surge in right wing extremism. The official occasion for Laschet’s trip was the opening of a North Rhine-Westphalia contact office in Tel Aviv to boost cultural and trade-relations between his state and Israel. But the German press was undivided in its view that, in fact, Laschet campaigned for his CDU-leadership-bid, by presenting himself as a statesman abroad. Indeed, the itinerary of the trip resembled an official state visit, including a meeting with Israeli president Reuven Rivlin and a wreath-laying ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. Laschet’s emphasize on German-Israeli friendship seems even more meaningful, when seen as the platform for the CDU-leadership-bid.  Yet, his commitment to Israeli security appears to be compromised by his timid, Merkel-like approach to foreign policy that shies away from confronting political and military developments in the Middle East. Foreign Policy Magazine characterized Laschet as a “cautious moderate in the Merkel mode (…) with a dose of her predecessor Gerhard Schröder’s business-über-alles reflex and readiness to engage with authoritarians.”
On a previous visit to Israel in 2018, Laschet remained remarkably reserved when Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, in a meeting, raised the issue of Iran. Last October, Laschet distanced himself from a proposal by Germany’s defense minister and outgoing CDU party chair Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to push for a non-flight zone over parts of Syria. He also rejected criticism that Germany does not take enough responsibility in international affairs, a position voiced by both his competitors in the race for the party-chair. In 2014, Laschet criticized then-US-foreign-secretary John Kerry for confronting Syrian dictator Baschar al-Assad, arguing that the latter would protect the Christian minority in his country  and that the West would be impelled to join forces with the autocrat in order to defeat ISIS. On the other hand, as early as 2002, as a member of the European Parliament, Laschet was a leading figure among a group of politicians, pressing for stricter supervision of European financial aid to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, after allegations transpired that those payments were misused to fund terrorism and antisemitic incitement.
Unlike his competitor Norbert Röttgen, Laschet has also spoken out clearly against BDS, even though, the burden to do so again has conveniently evaporated, when a state funded North Rhine-Westphalia culture festival that was slated to be opened by a BDS supporter was canceled due to the Covid-19 crisis. North Rhine-Westphalia, under Laschet, pioneered anti-BDS legislation in Germany. When the Bundestag, in May 2019, followed suit by passing its own anti-BDS bill, Laschet openly praised that decision, tweeting: “BDS is antisemitic! Thank you, lawmakers of the Bundestag for being so clear on this.” But Röttgen, even though voting in favor of the motion, in fact, was not clear on the matter at all. In a declaration submitted further to the vote, Röttgen demanded that the anti-BDS bill must not harm free speech or the work of political foundations dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Various NGOs have made headlines in the past for promoting antisemitic incitement, supporting BDS or collaborating with BDS-affiliates.
Opponents of the BDS-movement have demanded to shun these organizations and to stop financing them. In a way, the whole point of the Bundestag’s anti-BDS motion was to give such demands a basis. But Röttgen’s declaration appears to oppose that, referencing a group of radical Jewish and Israeli scholars who equate the condemnation of antisemitism with political censorship and deny the antisemitic nature of BDS. A 2016-editorial in the German weekly “Der Spiegel” quoted Röttgen, among other actors, to arrive at the conclusion that “Skepticism of German-Israeli friendship [is] growing in Berlin.” Even though Röttgen presents himself as an opponent of Merkel’s timid foreign policy, demanding a stronger role of Germany in the Middle East, he stops short of confronting the entrenchment of Iranian forces throughout Iraq. In a speech on Germany’s possible role in Iraq at the Bundestag, last January, Röttgen said: “We have to wait and see, how the inner-Iraqi power-struggle between pro-Iran and pro-Western forces will be decided. If we won’t be welcome in Iraq, we won’t be able to be there”. In other words: if Iran will take over Iraq, Germany should not interfere.
It remains to be seen, then, whether the future CDU will be the supporter of Israeli concerns that it was under Adenauer. ■