Analysis: Berlin's spectacular policy reversal

Durban II has shown relations with Israel to be terribly non-special for Germany.

Steinmeier 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Steinmeier 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
A UN spokesman announced on Sunday that Germany had canceled its plans to attend the Durban II Anti-Racism conference that opens in Geneva on Monday. Germany's last-minute decision to stay away from Geneva is a spectacular reversal of its earlier intention to attend the anti-Israeli spectacle. Observers had been perplexed by the federal republic's refusal to boycott (and lead in combating global anti-Semitism) a conference that will be marred by discriminatory treatment of Israel, anti-Semitism and indifference to the persecution of women and sexual, religious and ethnic minorities in the Islamic world. While a major European country - Italy - and the North American democracies of Canada and the US had previously announced that they would not participate in a conference infected with anti-Semitism, the Social Democratic-led German Foreign Ministry remained stubbornly wedded to Durban II. The Central Council of Jews in Germany, the Israeli government, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the "Boycott Durban II" initiative and the Coordinating Council of German Nongovernmental Organizations Against Anti-Semitism all appealed to the German government to set a moral and political example and stay away from Geneva. Large, respectable German dailies such as Der Tagesspiegel and Die Welt editorialized against Berlin's presence at Durban II. Those pleas had fallen on deaf ears. The warnings that Germany's presence would turn a hate spectacle into a respectable forum for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to deny the Holocaust and reiterate his threats to obliterate Israel seemingly failed to induce Germany to recoil from the UN meeting. Speakers at a conference on "Democracy and the UN-Human Rights Debate" in the Berlin Jewish community center on Sunday offered explanations for Germany's puzzling behavior in sticking with Durban II to the last minute. Seyran Ates, a prominent German-Turkish lawyer and publicist, said Germany was ill-suited to confront Islamic countries about their repression of women, homosexuals and Iran's embattled Baha'i minority, because the "German government is afraid to insult Islamists." She argued the Islamists "do not share our values" in the West and the German government was constantly capitulating to a form of relativism that insulated Islam from criticism. Ates cited forced marriages, the murder last week of leading female Afghani politician Sitara Achakzai and the new Afghan law compelling women to have sex with their husbands every four days as human rights violations that were ignored by the German government and those Islamic countries preparing to attend Durban II. "We do not want to be seen as 'Islamophobic,'" Ates said, noting that the concept of "Islamophobia" was connected with plans to destroy Israel because it shielded Muslim calls to obliterate Israel with a phony rationale to block criticism of Islam. Another competing theory about Germany's refusal to immediately walk away from Durban II involved the German Foreign Ministry's wish to secure a non-permanent seat in the 2011 UN Security Council. Berlin, according to this line of reasoning, needed the support of Islamic countries for the seat. Portugal is Germany's main competitor for the council seat and remains indifferent to calls to boycott Durban II. If Germany boycotted Durban II, then Portugal would win the support of Islamic countries for the seat. The German media have stressed that Germany has never boycotted a UN conference. This suggests that Germany, after reentering the civilized international community following the Holocaust and World War II, does not want to damage its international reputation, and that the UN is viewed as a kind of holy institution representing Germany's rehabilitation as a nation. A number of critics argue that the flourishing German economic relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran - where such German energy giants as Bayerngas, Siemens and RWE are active - carries some weight as an explanation for Berlin's reluctance to skip Durban II. Israel seems to have suffered a setback to its so-called "special relationship" with Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel declared Israel's existence to be an overriding priority for Germany's national security interests in the Knesset in March 2008. Yet a soft, low-intensity issue such as Durban II, which was never going to disrupt the roughly €4 billion in annual Germany-Iran trade or force a loss of German jobs, would have been a easy way to prove the "special relationship." If Berlin was prepared to ignore Israel with respect to a light-weight fight such as Durban II, what can Jerusalem expect from Germany when confronted with Teheran's nuclear weapons program and its genocidal threats. Durban II showed relations with Israel to be terribly non-special for Germany. The Iranian nuclear clock is ticking at an rapid-fire pace. If Germany's Durban II approach mirrors its Iran nuclear strategy, the special relationship might be history.