Aside from the United States, there’s no country that Israel has a more intimate relationship with than Germany.
Borne out of horrendous history, today, Germany is one of Israel’s strongest allies, and much of the credit for that on the German side can go to outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel, who, after 16 years at the helm, is stepping down.
Although she inherited policies regarding Israel and the Jewish community that had been set up in decades prior – from Holocaust reparations in the early 1950s to arms sales and joint military exercises – the relationship between Israel and Germany reached new heights during Merkel’s tenure.
Merkel visited Israel multiple times and established regular government-to-government cabinet meetings between the two nations which deepened the bilateral relations and cooperation.
Despite disagreements with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and past Israeli governments on the solution to the conflict with the Palestinians (she remained a strong two-state solution advocate) and Iran’s nuclear ambitions (she strongly advocated a diplomatic solution and pact with Tehran), Merkel remained committed to Israel’s security. Among the many military deals during her term, Germany has delivered to Israel multiple state-of-the-art navy destroyer ships, funding a third of the $500 million. price tag for the project.
At one of the many speeches she gave at the Knesset, she said that “Israel’s security would never be negotiable for Germany, because Germany’s historical responsibility is part of the ‘reason of state.’”
Gady Gronich of the Conference of European Rabbis told The Jerusalem Post’s Jeremy Sharon that under Merkel Israel enjoyed “excellent relations” with the German government, which he said was Israel’s most dependable partner.
Likewise, back home, Merkel was intent on making things right with the Jews of Germany and the survivors of the Holocaust. During her tenure, Germany’s federal and state governments have all appointed special envoys for monitoring and combating Jew-hatred. Some $26m. was invested in security for German Jewry following the attempted Halle synagogue massacre near Berlin in 2019.
In 2019, her government also allocated an extra $66m. for preservation work at the former Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. During a visit to the site that year, her first visit as chancellor, Merkel said she felt “deep shame” at what her countrymen had done to Jews before and during the Holocaust. “Remembering the crimes... is a responsibility which never ends. It belongs inseparably to our country,” Merkel said. “To be aware of this responsibility is part of our national identity.”
In another address, she said: “The Shoah fills us Germans with shame. I bow my head before the victims... The break with civilization that was the Shoah has no parallel... I most firmly believe that only if Germany accepts its responsibility for the moral disaster in its history, will we be able to build a humane future.”
With Merkel no longer in the picture, that future is murkier. Olaf Scholz, the chancellor candidate for Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), said on Monday he had a mandate to lead the next government after a narrow election victory, saying he would seek to form a coalition with the Greens and Free Democrats. Scholz said voters had told Merkel’s conservatives it was time to go into opposition after 16 years in power.
Gronich of the Conference of European Rabbis cautioned that if the SPD becomes the biggest party and Scholz becomes chancellor, it could affect Israel-Germany relations.
The party is less well-disposed to Israel, said Gronich, who added that it could result in more political pressure on Jerusalem from the EU, where Germany is the leading power, alongside France.
“Germany would change from being a partner to Israel to something else,” said Gronich.
However, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai told Haaretz that he doesn’t foresee any major changes after Merkel is replaced and that the “strong relationship will continue.”
The next leader of Germany has big shoes to fill and Merkel’s absence will be felt. That leader, whether it be Scholz or someone else, needs to remember the lessons of Germany’s past in order to make things right in the future.
As then-president Reuven Rivlin told Merkel during her state visit to Israel in 2018, there are many in Germany and Europe who have forgotten the past.
“New seeds of antisemitism are flourishing this time in the guise of right-wing political nationalism with Nazi roots, which are spreading throughout the European continent,” he said.
The challenge of Germany’s next leader is to do as much as Merkel did to combat that threat and to continue the special alliance between Germany and Israel.