german soldier 88.
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Israeli ambassador Shimon Stein is quite an experienced combatant on German news shows. But when he came to the ARD morning show, which I host from Berlin, he had a hard time answering a decisive question: Would the Jewish state welcome German troops as part of an international force on its northern border?
He tried to evade the question several times, saying, "It's up to the Germans to decide this."
It's a touchy topic for both Israelis and Germans. But the moment to deal with it is approaching fast.
The official line is: No rush. Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated in public: "In my opinion, to engage ourselves in an acute conflict is at the moment not the order of the day."
Journalists have learned to read between the lines, and when politicians exclude anything "at the moment" the real message is: We're giving intense thought to it."
And that is what's happening at this very moment in many government offices in sun-baked Berlin.
POLITICIANS and bureaucrats are thinking the unthinkable: Send German troops to the Middle East, to the northern border of the Jewish state.
While the chancellor is still reluctant to make a public commitment, her counterpart in the ruling grand coalition, SPD-chairman Kurt Beck, is less timid.
"It is right not to say no to such a peace force," he said in an interview. And at the Foreign Ministry ("please don't quote me on this..."), the still unofficial line is crystal-clear: If the European Union is asked to participate in such a force Germany cannot afford to exclude herself.
That is exactly what Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said after the Lebanon conference in Rome. The mission must be clearly defined, and it must happen under a mandate of the United Nations.
The debate among the German parliament rank and file is still on, but the Bundestag lawmakers are getting ready to accept the new marching orders for German troops - which they have to approve.
YES, THERE has been a voice of dissent. Gregor Gysi, chairman of the Bundestag parliamentary group of the post-communist PDS, whose family has Jewish roots, reminded Germans that after the killing of millions Jews there could be no way Germans soldiers should participate in such a mission.
Indeed, only a few years ago the attitude in both Germany and in Israel would have been more or less the same: After the Holocaust, German soldiers anywhere near Israel - never!
But it was in talks with Foreign Minister Steinmeier that Israeli defense chief Amir Peretz, for the first time, showed explicit openness to a NATO intervention; and Germany is a leading member in this military alliance.
The moment of truth is approaching fast, and so fundamental questions need to be answered.
Is it in the German interest to send troops? Yes, it is. First, the moral aspect: not despite the Holocaust, but because of the Holocaust. If German troops guard Israel's northern border, they are there to protect Jewish lives against the rocket attacks of Hizbullah.
There has never been a better reason for soldiers in German uniform.
NEXT the political aspect. The Middle East conflict dominates the struggle between radical Islam and the West. Without a solution to this conflict there will be no progress on other fronts, including Iraq and Iran.
Germany enjoys trust in both camps. Helping to bring more stability to the region as part of a peace force is certainly in the German interest - much more so than maintaining huge German troop contingents from Afghanistan to the Congo, where German soldiers have just arrived.
The Bundeswehr, with its limited manpower and financial resources, is already overstretched. But a mission in the Middle East must have priority.
GERMANY is aspiring to a larger role in world, and the Federal government has not given up its dream of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Participitation in a Middle East peace effort would probably be the most ambitious, most dangerous mission for the Bundeswehr so far.
But if Germany is serious about showing the world that it wants to shoulder more responsibility, this is the chance to do it.
The writer is senior correspondent for ARD German TV and Berlin Bureau Chief for ARD's morning show Morgenmagazin.