Leaders and history shapers

Apart from the Holocaust, the German-Israeli relationship rest on other elements.

Netanyahu embraces Merkel, Monday. (photo credit: GPO)
Netanyahu embraces Merkel, Monday.
(photo credit: GPO)
Fifty years ago, on March 14, 1960, two statesmen met in what was later defined as a historic meeting: the first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, and the first chancellor of Germany after World War II, Konrad Adenauer, met in a suite on the 35th floor of theWaldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. It was the first direct meeting between a German and an Israeli leader after the Holocaust. This meeting laid the foundations for the official relationship between Israel and what Ben-Gurion called the “new Germany.” Both men had visions as well as a pragmatic approach to determine the destiny of the two nations.
During their meeting, the two statesmen had also time to talk about their families. Adenauer told Ben-Gurion that once his grandson expressed the desire of being a chancellor himself in the future, and he replied: There is no room for two chancellors. Ben-Gurion told Adenauer that he did not wish his grandson to go into politics to spare him the troubles of a politician.
NOW, EXACTLY 50 years later, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung conducted a public meeting between the grandsons of the two leaders: Prof. Yariv Ben-Eliezer and Konrad Adenauer were present in Bonn and Berlin to recall personal memories and to take stock of the current state of affairs between the two countries.
Both grandsons maintained that the personal chemistry and relationship between Ben-Gurion and Adenauer enabled them to build trust and come to an agreement that served both nations. Their determination, leadership, and perseverance enabled them to overcome fierce opposition at home.
Ben-Eliezer said that for Ben-Gurion the agreement was not based on guilt, but he expected Germany to take responsibility for Israel, helping to build the state in a hostile environment and to revive the Jewish people. The support entailed not only financial help, but alsostrengthening the IDF and offering political backing in the international arena. It took a lot of courage for both leaders to take to build trust among the two peoples.
Adenauer the grandson, said that the first steps were the big steps. Today, they are smaller, but no less important. The relationship between Israel and Germany is very good. On the high political level, perhaps the strongest symbol for the close ties are the joint yealy meetings of the Israeli and German cabinets that took place this year for the second time. Polls in Israel show consistently that Chancellor Angela Merkel is one of the most popular world leaders. Her speech at the Knesset two years ago was received warmly. What a change: Fifty years ago, stones were thrown at the Knesset by the opposition to the reparation agreement.
Today, Germany is considered by many to be Israel’s closest ally after the US. Germany has a strong commitment for the well-being of the Jewish state: Merkel said in her speech in the Knesset that it is Germany ’s duty to stand for the existence of Israel as a Jewish state in security and peace with her neighbors. The same is part of the basic program of Adenauer’s and Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union. Today, the commitment to Israel ’s existence in security and peace is common sense among all big parties in the Bundestag.
But not only on the high political level, also in civil society there is a lively exchange: The language courses offered by German cultural institutions in Israel are overbooked. A key event in the cultural exchange was a concert of the German pop group Tokio Hotel that led toa hype among Israeli youngsters. Israelis are the biggest group of foreign tourists in Berlin – after Americans. The club scene in Tel Aviv is attracting many Germans. Extensive academic and economic ties, in particular in hi-tech, link both countries. Today, a tight net of personal relationships continues to build trust between the peoples.
ARE THERE challenges for the future relationship? Of course. Most of the survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust are no longer with us. One challenge, according to Adenauer the grandson, is to pass the responsibility for Israel to the younger generations in Germany .
The Holocaust will always be a major element in the German-Israeli relationship. But the relations will also have to rest on more pillars, based on shared interests and values. Germany and Israel face, as modern democracies and open civil societies, common challenges, including the future of social standards in an aging society, questions of integration and immigration, and not least the threat of terrorism; all of which can be a basis for cooperation and dialogue in the future.
Germans are also beginning to better understand the dilemma that Israel faces in its fight against terror and in asymmetric conflict since German soldiers have to cope with similar situations in Afghanistan, where the line between military and civilian targets is often blurred.
Many challenges remain for Israel, Germany and the German-Israelirelationship. Ben-Eliezer said: “Many wonder if history shapes leaders,or leaders shape history. The case of  Ben-Gurion and Adenauer showshow leaders can shape history.”
Let’s hope that the two nations may be blessed with great leaders for the future.

The writer is director of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Israel.