Germany has a historical responsibility for Israel's security - opinion

Relations between Israel and Germany went through a process of warming since the Holocaust.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visit the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem last week. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visit the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem last week.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

Immediately following Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s surprise Kremlin meeting with President Vladimir Putin, Bennett flew to Berlin to brief Chancellor Olaf Scholz. It was the second German-Israeli summit within days, Scholz having just returned from his inaugural visit to Jerusalem as Germany’s leader. 

Now familiar, meetings between Israeli and German leaders were once unheard of. In the years after independence, the young Jewish state adamantly refused to recognize the post-war Federal Republic of Germany, the very immediate impact of the Holocaust-denying the possibility of normal ties. 

Back then Israeli passports were specifically marked to prevent travel to Germany. Even when the official ban was lifted, many Israelis still refused to visit, imposing their own private boycott of the nation responsible for murdering six million Jews. 

Over the years this slowly changed, but I was never alone in not wanting to holiday in Germany, visiting for the first time in 2008, and then as part of prime minister Ehud Olmert’s delegation. Only a decade later did I make a private trip, together with my siblings, visiting my father’s birthplace, Magdeburg. 

In that initial visit, traveling in the official motorcade from the airport to the city center, I felt the need to talk to my Holocaust survivor father. Impressed by the elaborate security the German government was providing, I told him he need not worry about my safety as numerous uniformed Germans armed with submachine guns were protecting our delegation. My father responded with not untypical black humor, suggesting that I remain vigilant – those uniformed Germans might suddenly turn around and start pointing their weapons at me.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett meets with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin on Saturday night. (credit: BPA/Reuters) PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett meets with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin on Saturday night. (credit: BPA/Reuters)

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was the architect of the modern Israel-Germany relationship. Ben-Gurion navigated a delicate and incremental process toward normalization amid heated opposition. His partner in this effort was Konrad Adenauer, the Christian Democratic founding father of what was then called “the new Germany.”

Ben-Gurion’s approach wasn’t driven by any special love for Germany, but by realpolitik. The embattled and impoverished newborn Jewish state was in desperate need of allies and of economic assistance.

For his part, Adenauer understood the weight of his country’s Holocaust guilt, appreciating that to be fully accepted into the Western community of nations, his Federal Republic needed to publicly atone for German crimes against the Jews.

The 1952 Israel-German reparations agreement was the beginning. Yet notwithstanding the provision of critically needed funds, the deal still generated a fiery and emotional debate in Israel. Menachem Begin, whose political career had been on a downturn, led the protests, one outside the Knesset famously turning violent. Begin accused Ben-Gurion that “because of a few million defiled dollars… [you] throw away the little bit of dignity that we have earned... you endanger our honor and independence.” 

It was not just Herut on the Right that opposed German-Israel rapprochement; the parties of the Left were similarly averse. Ben-Gurion also had to deal with significant opposition inside his own Mapai Party.

In 1957 another political crisis erupted when ministers discovered that Ben-Gurion had secretly sent the IDF chief of staff to Germany to promote bilateral defense cooperation. Two years later, leftist coalition partners bolted the government over the expanding defense ties with Germany, forcing new elections. Yet despite the intense opposition, Ben-Gurion doggedly persisted in moving forward, conferring with Adenauer in New York in 1960, the first meeting between an Israeli prime minister and a German chancellor. 

In 1965, Jerusalem and Bonn finally established full diplomatic relations, although the impassioned debate around them continued. When president Zalman Shazar received the credentials of Germany’s first ambassador, the protest outside the official residence became inflamed, demonstrators opposed to normalization attacking the ambassador’s car.

Over the decades since, political controversy around Israeli-German ties has all but disappeared, but the unique character of the relationship – and the ingrained sensitivity – has remained.

In 2008, chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the Knesset in honor of Israel’s forthcoming 60th Independence Day. She spoke of Germany having a “special historical responsibility for Israel’s security,” a staatsräson (binding national ethos) that unequivocally obligates all governments of the Federal Republic, past, present and future.  

This commitment to Israel’s national security isn’t just declarative – the Israeli navy, among others, attesting to its concreteness. But when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program there are Israelis who raise an eyebrow. While friends may disagree over policy, it is undeniable that of all the European powers Berlin is the most accommodating to Tehran.

In recent years senior German politicians have also increasingly felt liberated from the constraints of history and allowed themselves to criticize Israel. Sigmar Gabriel, former Social Democratic Party leader, even compared Israeli behavior in the West Bank to apartheid. 

In 2012, making small talk with Gabriel prior to his meeting with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, I mentioned that my grandfather had been an active member of his party. Gabriel asked, if so, how was I working for Netanyahu. I could have answered that his country’s treatment of my family may have had some influence on my world view, but instead elected to reply diplomatically. It was, after all, only small talk. 

Last week in Jerusalem, Bennett, alongside his German counterpart, stated that Israel-German relations “have come a long way since David Ben-Gurion and Adenauer,” and announced “a significant upgrade” in ties through an agreement for a “new strategic cooperation... a biannual dialogue on security and diplomatic matters.” 

Scholz responded that “Germany will always stand fast by Israel’s side.” At the conclusion of his visit at Yad Vashem, the chancellor wrote in the guest book: “The crime against humanity that is the Shoah granted humanity a glimpse into the abyss. The mass murder against Jews was instigated by Germany. It was planned and executed by Germans. From this arises an everlasting responsibility of every German government for the safety of the State of Israel and the protection of Jewish life. We will never forget the millionfold suffering and the victims!”

When, last October, Angela Merkel paid her final visit to Israel as chancellor, she took comfort in the fact that after the Holocaust “it has been possible to reset and to reestablish relations between Germany and Israel to the extent that we have done.”

Today’s Jerusalem-Berlin partnership demonstrates how, while preserving historical memory, it is nonetheless possible to transcend the harshest of enmities and build tangible avenues of cooperation. Surely there is an important lesson here for all humanity.

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is a senior visiting fellow at the INSS at Tel Aviv University. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.