Germany’s relationship with Israel has emerged as a result of historical processes and reactions against World War II. Through the decades, that relationship has deepened, broadened, and grown to become a “special” one, and this country has been a steadfast ally for Israel in international organizations like the UN, and the global political world in general. And yet recently, tension has built between the two sides; frustration with the lack of progress on peace and the persistence of the settlements, internal political pressures, disputes and diplomatic mishaps between the two friends, and a general disconnect on the urgency and time frame the peace process should take has opened the door for unease to nestle in between the countries, even as they put a good face on things publicly.
While Israel’s relationship with the U.S.A. will always be more important, the German one may be more indicative of Israel’s future support.
The two countries have been close ever since Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and West Germany Chancellor Konrad Adenauer sealed the Luxembourg Reparations Agreement for Jewish Holocaust victims and survivors in 1952. Since formal diplomatic relations opened in 1965, Germany (West Germany pre-1990) has been Israel’s champion in Europe, even more so than the UK or, in the post-Cold War Europe, the Czech Republic.
Beneath this, youth education, scientific, and economic exchanges between the two countries provide a lower level way to connect people. Current Chancellor Angela Merkel has been vocal in her support during difficult periods like the Gaza War of 2008-2009, and the recent joint cabinet meeting at the end of last year showed the tight ties between the two governments.
The importance of the relationship for each country is clear. For Israel, Germany is one of their biggest trading partners and a major moderating force in the EU, which Israel views as biased towards the Palestinians. For Germany, support for Israel’s right to exist, security, and place in the international community as much as anything else symbolizes the “new Germany” that rose from the self-immolated ashes of Hitler’s regime.
There are cracks, however, in that façade, and more have been showing up recently. Germany remains committed to the EU’s general policy towards the peace process, which is to encourage and support a two-state solution in historic Palestine, replete with acknowledgement that the settlements are illegal, that Jerusalem should be divided, and that the refugee problem must be solved justly.
Germany, therefore, has been the biggest financial backer of the Palestinian Authority since the Oslo Accords in 1993. Germany, which has strong economic and diplomatic ties with the Arab world, including Syria and, decreasingly, Iran, believes that they can serve as an honest broker when necessary, in a way the U.S., for example, cannot. Their success in mediating prisoner exchanges between Israel and Hezbollah (and their effort currently to do the same between Hamas and Israel) attests to this.
While these positions are fairly standard and hardly threatening to Israel in and of itself, they provide the setting for frustrations to arise. Several incidents over the past two years, from settlers attacking a visiting German Parliamentary delegation to an Israeli government official screaming at a German aide to Merkel to the most recent dustup, where Prime Minister Netanyahu supposedly misrepresented a telephone conversation he had with Merkel in the aftermath of the building announcement in East Jerusalem during U.S. VP Joseph Biden’s visit, have led to some bruised feelings and more questioning stances from Germany.
As the director of the Tel Aviv office of a political foundation associated with a German political party told me,
“The Israeli government has really pissed Germany off. These things are not forgotten.”
A more fundamental problem looms beyond these momentary mishaps. Public opinion polls taken over the past few years in Germany have shown two trends that should trouble Israel: Germans feel increasingly distant from the Holocaust and the responsibility for it, and they feel less and less of a need to have a special relationship with Israel. The same isolationist tendency that has Germans eager to take their troops out of Afghanistan wants to see an exit from dealing with the Middle East.
A gulf within Germany is emerging between the current political class, which understands the importance of ties with Israel, and a public that doesn’t think it’s worth it anymore. “The Germany-Israel relationship (already) has hollow elements, and a lack of backing,” said my Tel Aviv source. “There is no way to uphold a good relationship if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict continues.”
More than a year into the Netanyahu government, it has become clear that grand gestures should not be expected. Proximity talks loom, and the slightest tingling of hope sounds, but in the meantime, Israel is left befuddled at how to reassure their friends that they have their house in order and their policy pointed towards peace. Their friends are equally befuddled as to how to induce that sort of policy and any progress in that direction.
The Israeli problem is that the government has not presented any true vision for how it wants to resolve this conflict, and that it does not see solving the conflict as particularly urgent or possible in a short time frame. The German problem is that they’re caught between the EU, still awkwardly finding its united foreign policy legs; the new U.S. administration with its sense of hope, change, and the idea that a solution can be manufactured quickly; the reality of two nations with limited trust or belief that a suitable agreement is possible; and an Israeli government that is ill-constituted to reach any such agreement. And if the process continues to drag sans progress, the German public will continue to tug at their leaders to leave the situation alone.
History bears strange fruits. The strong relationship between Germany and Israel, considering WWII and all it represents, is a sign of the possibility for change when nations, leaders, and people have the will to go through it. Now, as the reasons for that change fade in importance in Germany, the relationship itself is soon to come under threat.
Before that happens, Germany wants to help. But unless Israel, its leaders and its people, can find a way to renew that possibility with regards to the Palestinian conflict, and unless Germany can figure out how to use their special position to supplement the process, strange fruits might go rotten.