The World from Berlin: Gauck's Comments on Israel Undiplomatic 'But Still Right'

While on a state visit to Israel this week, German President Joachim Gauck made comments that some have interpreted as putting him at odds with Chancellor Angela Merkel's stance on German-Israeli relations. Though not all German commentators are happy with his comments, they still think Merkel's position deserves more examination.

German President Gauck (r) met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on Wednesday in Israel. Zoom
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German President Gauck (r) met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on Wednesday in Israel.

While Germany's new president, Joachim Gauck, has been on his first state visit to Israel this week, images in the papers at home have shown him visiting the Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But it has been the popular president's choice of words when describing the country's relationship to Israel that have generated headlines.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday in Jerusalem, Gauck appeared to distance himself from German Chancellor Angela Merkel's stated position that the security of Israel is Germany's raison d'é tat, or national interest, and that Germany would stand by Israel even in the event of war with Iran -- comments for which she herself has been heavily criticized at home.

"I don't want to think of war scenarios," Gauck said, but added, "Germany should be the very last country to to turn away from friendship and solidarity with Israel."

At a meeting with Peres that same day, Gauck said: "Advocacy for Israel's security and right to exist is a defining part of German policy." By avoiding use of the term raison d'état, however, Gauck has been criticized at home for overstepping his bounds as president, a largely ceremonial post.

On Wednesday, he responded to the criticism of his remarks. "If someone wants to see a divide between the chancellor and me because of a choice of words, that would be a mistake," he said in Jerusalem. "I completely agree with Angela Merkel on this issue."

Gauck was elected president in March after his predecessor, Christian Wulff, stepped down following a series of scandals related to his personal business dealings. Gauck, a 72-year-old former pastor and East German opponent of communism, had been nominated for the post by the Green Party in 2010, but lost out to Wulff, the candidate of Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), on the third ballot.

This year, Merkel initially resisted Gauck's candidacy but was forced to support him after even her junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), said they would back Gauck. In the end, he won the support of all major parties.

German-Israeli relations have not been without difficulties these days. A recent survey conduct by the Forsa research institute found that 58 percent of Germans consider Israel to be foreign. Likewise, the recent scandal over the Israel poem by Nobel laureate Günter Grass, which was highly critical of Israeli threats to attack Iran, highlighted the difficulties that many Germans have with embracing Isreal.

German editorialists largely stood by Gauck Thursday, even if some of them disagreed with his choice of words in Jerusalem.

The weekly newspaper Die Zeit writes:

"Like most eloquent speakers, (Gauck) sometimes utters a sentence or two too many -- and then things get risky. And since, for a German politician, it is nowhere riskier to attempt new statements than in Israel, one could have bet that he would say something wrong on his trip to the Mideast."

"And it happened. The president distanced himself from a statement made by the chancellor. Four years ago, Angela Merkel delivered a speech in front of the Israeli parliament in which she said the security of Israel was Germany's raison d'é tat ."

"The message from her is, to say the least, multi-layered. But what does it mean? That Germany supports Israeli policies as long as they are measured, reasonable and fair? A German government would do that without its being a raison d'é tat . Does it mean that Germany would support Israeli policies when they are not measured, reasonable or fair? That can't be true."

"More concretely, as concerns Iran, which was the context of her comments, German support of a preventative strike made by Israel against the country would depend on the circumstances -- German political support, that is, since Germany does not have much to offer militarily …"

"If operating according to realpolitik -- and this is the standard the president applies to himself -- he should have diplomatically refrained from saying anything when asked a question about raison d'é tat ."

The left-leaning daily Berliner Zeitung writes:

"(Gauck) cherishes the right to his own opinion, and so he has given thought to the core of one of Angela Merkel's statements: that Israel's right to exist is a raison d'é tat for Germany. She made that promise not just in Israel, but also in a speech before the UN General Assembly. So it must carry weight. But what does it mean in practice? What if it comes down to a war between Israel and Iran ... ? Would the chancellor then send the German army to Israel to protect the country militarily?"

"Ultimately, one could understand it that way. And making a political and moral commitment to a friend that in reality would not be kept worries Joachim Gauck. In other words, it's an empty promise. By making this assessment of the chancellor publicly and in Israel, Gauck may have been breaking the rules of politics -- but he was still right."

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"Gauck, as a self-confident pastor and citizen, sometimes falls back into familiar traps… He has done so here again by not preventing the impression that he is divided with Chancellor Angela Merkel's government on the issue of Israel's right to exist and Germany's corresponding responsibility."

"What is nice about Gauck is that, even as president, a measure of Gauck the citizen -- and one who likes to share his opinion -- remains. In doing so, Gauck can be proud of his humility, but he still runs the risk of overstepping the role of his office."

The Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel writes:

"Angela Merkel once said in Jerusalem that Israel's security and right to exist is a German raison d'é tat. She might have used the word for dramatic effect. But, by consciously avoiding it, Gauck has unintentionally allowed room for interpretation. Is the German president loosening the ties to Israel and easing German responsibility? In Israel, they know that's not true. ... A little less hyperventilation would be a good thing for German-Israeli relations. For some time now, the relationship between the two countries has not been as sensitive, delicate and tricky as some would have it."

-- Mary Beth Warner

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