Best friends forever?

As a younger generation comes to power in Germany, the special relationship could be hurt without progress with the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Jerusalem, February 25, 2014. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Jerusalem, February 25, 2014.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
FORTY-NINE years after they established diplomatic ties, relations between Israel and Germany are still fraught with intrinsic ambivalence. Germany is without doubt Israel’s best friend in Europe. But the pall of Holocaust memory remains heavy.
And although German leaders are still driven by recognition of Germany’s historic debt to the Jewish people, they feel uncomfortable with Israel, the occupying power.
According to Chancellor Angela Merkel, an integral part of the new Germany’s raison d’être is “to ensure Israel’s security.”
But it is not to help maintain what many German leaders see as an unjust occupation.
The bottom line is that while Germany’s commitment to Israel’s security and future well-being is non-negotiable, the health of the special relationship is dependent on a two-state solution with the Palestinians, or, at least, on a genuine Israeli effort to achieve one.
In other words, collapse of the current American mediation effort – especially if Israel is blamed – could dampen ties with Berlin. And in the longer term, as a young generation of Germans less consumed by Holocaust guilt comes to power, the special relationship could be compromised. This would have serious repercussions. For if Israel were to “lose” Germany, it would almost certainly lose most of Europe.
The symbolic joint session of the Israeli and German cabinets in Jerusalem, in late February, captured the German ambivalence. The very fact that it was taking place underlined the special nature of the relationship. But the occasion and the buildup to it elicited full expression of German unease at Israel’s Palestinian policies.
Time and again the German side emphasized the need for Israel to do more to achieve peace. Merkel argued that securing Israel’s future, which was Germany’s goal, required genuine moves towards a two-state solution. In an op-ed in the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth, her Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier wrote that Israel needed to take “the tough but necessary decisions for peace.” In Madrid, a day before the joint cabinet meeting, Steinmeier put his finger on the main bone of contention: Israel’s continued building in settlements across the Green Line, which he excoriated as “disruptive” to peace efforts.
The settlement building is particularly irksome to Germany, and all EU countries for that matter, for several reasons. In their view, it violates international law, it feeds continued occupation and, worse, it suggests a lack of good faith in Israel’s negotiating position vis-à-vis the Palestinians. It is at the heart of the duality in Germany’s total commitment to Israel’s well-being and its firm opposition to the occupation.
This duality is reflected, inter alia, in Germany’s approach to boycott calls against Israel. The Germans are strongly opposed to all forms of boycott against Israel proper, because of their commitment to Israel’s wellbeing; but they support labeling produce from the settlements as a clear message against the occupation. For the same reason, in May 2011, Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway, pulled out of a high-speed train project to Jerusalem because part of the projected line traversed a slice of occupied territory.
THE GERMANS have also wavered while trying to strike a balance between traditional support for Israel and efforts to create conditions for a two-state solution. In October 2011, Germany was one of only 14 countries to vote against Palestinian membership in UNESCO. But a year later, despite Israeli efforts to get it to lead the EU bloc against implicit UN recognition of Palestinian statehood, Germany merely abstained in the November 2012 UN General Assembly vote granting Palestine non-member observer status.
Compounding the differences between Germany and Israel is the testy relationship between Merkel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Over the past few years there have been several angry exchanges. Netanyahu felt that Germany was being too soft on Iran; Merkel complained that Netanyahu was not being honest with her on settlement building.
And she questioned his commitment to peacemaking with the Palestinians.
Beyond the acrimony between the two leaders, there are profound differences in sensibility between the two peoples. Both have a deep, unshakeable “never again” attitude towards the Holocaust. But for the Germans, the perpetrators, the lesson of the Holocaust and World War II is that the horrors of war must be shunned at all costs and differences between states resolved through diplomacy. This pacifistic view has been reinforced by the peaceful post-war Europe they have helped create.
For Israelis, with Jews the helpless victims, the lesson of the Holocaust has been quite the reverse – that they must be in a position to use force to protect themselves, and that they cannot rely on others or trust diplomacy alone. This view has been reinforced by the existential threats they have faced and continue to face in a volatile and hostile Middle East. And clearly this fundamental difference in perception affects public opinion and global assessments.
Sometimes it leads to harsh and unjust criticism of Israel in Germany. Most famously two years ago, in a poem entitled “What Must be Said,” acclaimed German novelist Günter Grass argued that Israeli might constituted the greatest threat to world peace. He made two main points: that, despite the Holocaust, Germans should be free to criticize Israel objectively and that an Israel-Iran nuclear showdown could cause a global conflagration. Although many Germans heaped criticism on Grass, some even accusing him of using language bordering on anti-Semitism, polls showed that most Germans agreed with the then 84-year-old author.
Most German criticism of Israel, however, especially by leading politicians, has been aimed at the occupation and at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. After a visit to Hebron in March 2012, Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the Social Democrats (SPD), described the situation in the divided city as “an apartheid regime for which there is no justification.” His outburst ran into a hail of criticism inside Germany.
Christian Democrat (CDU) Secretary General Hermann Grohe called it a “verbal blackout.”
Gabriel retorted that he was only talking about Hebron and certainly did not wish to compare Israel with apartheid South Africa. But although expressing regret at the misleading use of the apartheid word, he did not retract the main thrust of his criticism. “I think Israel’s current settlement policy is wrong and I consider the conditions in Hebron undignified,” he insisted. “We are not doing any favors to ourselves or to our friends in Israel if we continue veiling our criticism in diplomatic flowers of speech.” Gabriel, who has been to Israel more than 20 times, considers himself a friend. His critique – although far blunter than the usual understated censure – reflects a consensus in ruling German circles. And significantly, as leader of the SPD, Gabriel, 54, the current economics minister, could be the next German chancellor.
The most recent case of a public GermanIsraeli clash on the Palestinian issue came in the Knesset in early February, when Martin Schulz, the German president of the European Parliament raised the question of disproportionate water resources and Knesset members from the hawkish Bayit Yehudi stormed out making Holocaust allusions. Indeed, it is with the positions of Israeli rightists that post-war liberal, pacifist Germany finds itself most out of sync – especially their ultra-nationalistic rhetoric and their anti-Arab legislative initiatives, which run counter to Western notions of civic equality.
NEVERTHELESS, TO put things in perspective, German criticism of all kinds and from all quarters has been far outweighed by the Federal Republic’s ongoing contribution to Israel’s security and economy. Most dramatically over the past two decades Germany has supplied Israel with five Dolphin submarines, reportedly capable of launching nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. If true, this gives Israel an off-shore second-strike capability, an incalculably valuable addition to its nuclear deterrence. Delivery of a sixth state-of-the-art submarine is expected in 2017. The total cost of the six vessels is estimated at around $4 billion, of which Germany has subsidized well over a third.
Israel and Germany have also reportedly jointly developed a nuclear warning system.
Dubbed “Project Bluebird,” it is designed to detect a nuclear-tipped warhead amid a cluster of decoy missiles.
The two countries share military intelligence, and the BND – the German equivalent of the CIA or the Mossad – has been instrumental in securing the release of Israeli agents and soldiers taken prisoner in Arab countries or by Arab terrorist organizations. Most recently it was BND agent, Gerhard Conrad, a fluent Arabic speaker, who helped negotiate the return of the bodies of kidnapped Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser from Lebanon in 2008 and the release of Gilad Shalit by Hamas in 2011.
The German contribution to the Israeli economy is also hugely significant.
Germany is Israel’s third largest trading partner, after the US and China. And Israel is Germany’s second largest trading partner in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia. Some 6,000 German companies have business ties with Israel. In 2012, the volume of bilateral trade topped $6.5 billion. By way of comparison, the corresponding figure for bilateral trade with Japan is less than half.
Perhaps the most crucial German contribution to the Israeli economy – especially as the young country struggled to absorb hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the 1950s – came in the form of Holocaust reparations, estimated in 2007 at over $25 billion.
Scientific cooperation between the two countries is also highly developed, with scores of joint projects. For example, 2009 Nobel Prize winner for chemistry, Professor Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, conducted part of her breakthrough research on the ribosome in German laboratories in Berlin and Hamburg.
As Steinmeier put it in his op-ed, given the dark chapters in German-Jewish history, the fact that the two countries have developed this close a relationship is nothing less than a miracle. Indeed, the strategic value to Israel of the relationship with Germany is second only to that of its ties with the US. The worry though is that failure to progress towards a two-state solution with the Palestinians could trigger a serious erosion. In other words, Israel has a lot to lose on the German front should the Palestinian process bog down. Already there are worrying signs in German public opinion and among Germany’s political elite.
On the other hand, Israel stands to make considerable gains if a two-state solution with the Palestinians is achieved. Germany is at the forefront of efforts to grant both Israel and Palestine “special privileged partnership” with the EU, the highest form of association short of full membership, if there is a breakthrough. This would mean upgraded Israeli access to European markets, closer scientific cooperation, more European investment and no more talk of boycotts, divestments or sanctions.
Netanyahu is in the hot seat. His decisions on the Palestinian track over the coming months will have a defining influence on Israel’s future.