German Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Sunday, at the beginning of a three-day visit to Iran to explore business ties, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel declared that it will be impossible for his country to normalize relations until the Iranians recognize Israel.
On Monday, the Iranians rejected Gabriel’s call.
“We have totally different views from Germany on certain regional issues in the Middle East and we have explicitly expressed our viewpoints in different negotiations,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marziyeh Afkham said on Monday. See the latest opinion pieces on our Opinion & Blogs Facebook page
Though we hope to be pleasantly surprised, Gabriel probably did not mean what he said.
It is a worn-out saying, but actions really do speak louder than words. Iranians were not paying attention to Gabriel’s empty statements, but rather to the alacrity with which the Germans – before any other European country – rushed to Tehran to reap the benefits of a new era of economic cooperation with Iran.
The ink on the nuclear arms agreement has barely dried; the deal has yet to be ratified; the sanctions have yet to be removed; yet the Germans are clamoring to do business.
That Gabriel made pro forma statements regarding Israel hardly registered with the Iranians, and rightly so.
Much more significant was the fact that leading heads of German industry had schlepped all the way to Tehran.
And of course there is Gabriel’s own record vis-à-vis Israel. In 2012, during a visit to Israel, for instance, he called on Jerusalem to negotiate directly with Hamas, and planned to meet with the terrorist organization himself, though he was prevented from doing so by the security situation in the Gaza Strip.
During the same trip, which included a visit to Hebron, he referred to Israel as an apartheid state on his Facebook page, though he later clarified that he did not intend to compare Israel with South Africa.
Since we seem to be on the verge of a very different Middle East with a resurgent Iran reasserting itself as an internationally recognized threshold nuclear state that openly supports terrorism while carrying on active trade with the West, it is worth looking at the behavior of Germany, Europe’s most economically powerful state, vis-à-vis Israel.
We know that we have to be careful here. Israel often misreads European – and German – politics and often ascribes the darkest of motives. But this is not to say that Germany has not over the years made major foreign policy blunders regarding Israel. And the basis of Israeli mistrust is not solely Germany’s Second World War record.
In 1967, when Israel was on the verge of being overrun by the combined armies of our Arab neighbors and Israelis were digging mass graves in preparation, no European country – including Germany – came to Israel’s aid.
In 1973, there was a repeat of the same despicable behavior with only Portugal serving as an exception to the rule of European callousness by granting the US overflight rights to rush us much-needed supplies.
Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Federal Republic refused.
In 2000, when Israel put on the table an offer of Palestinian statehood over some 97 percent of the territories and received in return a deadly backlash of terrorism that exposed the sick underbelly of Palestinian society, European political leadership did not rush to our defense.
Of course, there were exceptions. Joschka Fischer, Gabriel’s predecessor as vice chancellor from 1998 through 2005, proved to be a true friend of Israel.
And Chancellor Angela Merkel has significantly improved Germany’s relations with the Jewish state.
Speaking to the Knesset in 2008, Merkel said that the existence of the Jewish state was part of Germany’s raison d’etat and nonnegotiable. And these are not just empty words. Merkel’s Germany has provided Israel with vital military aid and has stood by the Jewish state in international forums.
In this context, it was only fitting that Gabriel insist Germany’s normalization of economic ties with Iran be conditional on Iranian recognition of Israel.
Too often, however, there is a great deal of distance between German leaders’ words and deeds. This was clearly on display this week in Iran.