The future challenges of the German-Israel relationship

Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany are linked by close political, economic, cultural and civil society contacts.

 German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin (photo credit: REUTERS)
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Germany’s new government is in place after 16 years of leadership by Angela Merkel. A coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Liberals (FDP) and Greens (Grüne) want to steer the country’s fortunes in the future. 

Olaf Scholz, most recently finance minister and vice-chancellor under Merkel, has been elected the new chancellor. 

In terms of foreign policy, the new government wants to build on proven pillars: the commitment to Europe, the friendship with France, the partnership with the US, and the commitment to peace and understanding in the world. 

This multilateral approach also relies on strengthening the UN politically, financially and in terms of personnel. But how will the new government shape German-Israeli relations? 

Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany are linked by close political, economic, cultural and civil society contacts. This network was already established before May 12, 1965, the day the two countries exchanged notes on the establishment of diplomatic relations. 

Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. (credit: REUTERS)Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. (credit: REUTERS)

The first steps along this path had already been taken in the 1950s, only a short time after the end of the genocide of European Jews committed by National Socialist Germany. The knowledge of the past, but also common values and interests, endow the relations between the two states with a unique character.

Diplomacy: Thirteen years ago, on March 18, 2008, chancellor Merkel gave a speech to the Israeli parliament whose key sentence gave the impression that she had formulated a completely new guideline for German foreign policy, from which different steps in German-Israeli relations would now be derived than had previously been the case: “This historical responsibility of Germany is part of my country’s reason of state. This means that Israel’s security is never negotiable for me as German chancellor.”

It remains unclear to what extent Merkel’s laudable declaration has changed the German-Israeli relationship. One thing is certain, however: with her dogmatic statement, the chancellor had created a framework under which all basic decisions on German Israel policy will be made. 

In August of this year, the future chancellor Scholz took a clear stance on Israel and further stretched the framework that Merkel once formulated. “Out of our historical responsibility, we are committed to Israel’s security,” he told the newspaper Welt. He said that he opposed “unfair treatment of Israel in the UN” and supported “its legitimate interests.”

He also used Merkel’s choice of words. “The security of the Jewish state is Germany’s reason of state” He also welcomed the normalization of relations between other Arab states and Israel that had begun.

The Israeli position is also clear. Jeremy Issacharoff, Israel’s ambassador in Berlin, tweeted a photo of himself with Scholz and wrote that Israel would “continue to work to further strengthen the strategic partnership with Germany in all aspects for the benefit of our two peoples.”

The new Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock underlined the contents of the coalition agreement. “For me, Israel’s security and right to exist are part of the German raison d’être,” she said in an interview with the discussion format Tacheles Arena of the Central Council of Jews in Germany in August 2021. “As Europeans, Germans and Greens, we reject a boycott of Israel. Clearly and unequivocally. There are no ifs and buts about it. If you say that Israel is boycotted across the board, then this stance is antisemitic.”

IN PRINCIPLE, however, foreign policy is a matter for the chancellor, as Scholz made clear last week in his very first TV interview with Die Welt. When asked whether Baerbock or he would determine foreign policy, he said: “The whole country pays attention to the world and that is why we will act together as a government – and that starts with the head of government”.

In terms of diplomacy, the new German government will also continue to advocate a two-state solution, the new chancellor stressed. “Peace must be permanently self-sustaining,” he said in July 2021. Furthermore, the German government will continue to financially support the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). 

Furthermore, the coalition agreement states: “We expect the Palestinian side to make progress in democracy, the rule of law and human rights. This also applies to the renunciation of any form of violence against Israel. We call for a halt to the construction of settlements, which is contrary to international law.”

Trade: Germany is Israel’s most important economic partner in the EU, with a trade volume of $6.9 billion (2019). Products “Made in Germany” enjoy an excellent reputation, according to information from the German Foreign Ministry. German companies are well positioned when it comes to awarding infrastructure projects. 

Vehicles in particular, as well as products of the chemical industry, machinery and optical instruments, measuring, testing and precision technology are imported from Germany. Exports to Germany (worth $1.8 billion) are mainly chemical and electro-technical products, as well as precision mechanical and optical products. Israeli-German trade relations are expected to continue to flourish. 

Military: In October 2021, aircraft from the Israel Air Force and the German Air Force flew over the Knesset in Jerusalem in a flyby to demonstrate the close cooperation between the two countries and their armed forces.

It was the first time since World War I that German aircraft flew over Jerusalem.

“The flyby is an expression of the close partnership and connection between the air forces of the two countries, as well as the commitment to further cooperation in the future,” the IDF said. According to the statement, the air force chiefs of Germany and Israel, Ingo Gerhartz and Amikam Norkin, previously visited Yad Vashem together.

At the beginning of 2021, the German and Israeli ministries of defense signed an intergovernmental agreement for the delivery of the Trophy active protection system from Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. The German military intends to use the technology for its tanks. 

It is a combat-proven mechanism that has been in use by the IDF for almost a decade and is integrated into the Merkava Mark IV and Namer armored vehicles. Defense Minister Benny Gantz stressed, “Germany’s show of confidence in an Israeli system underscores the important relationship and close cooperation between our countries and highlights the strength of Israeli industry.”

The closeness of military relations between Germany and Israel is most evident in the largest arms deal to date. In the past, Germany manufactured state-of-the-art submarines that were sold to Israel. 

Initially, Baerbock spoke out in 2018 in favor of stopping the supply of submarines to Israel; however, after the conflict with Hamas escalated in May 2021, she clearly sided with Israel and emphasized the Jewish state’s right to self-defense. 

The coalition agreement provides for German arms exports to be better controlled in future by means of a law. Until now, the export of arms has only been subject to political guidelines. These guidelines prohibit the handling in crisis regions – but so far it is still open whether Israel will be defined as a crisis region. 

Overall, a policy of continuity toward Israel can be expected from the new German government. The positions laid down are very similar to Merkel’s policy. Even if Israel and Germany disagree on Iran or settlement construction, the good German-Israeli relationship will hardly falter under the new government. ■

The writer is an International Journalist’s Programs fellow from Germany. He works for the online editorial department of the “Frankfurter Rundschau,” and covers Germany, European politics and the Middle East.