Most public speeches given about relations between Berlin and Jerusalem emphasize the special relationship between the two countries and the fact that the historic obligation stemming from the crimes of the Nazis is part of Germany's raison d'état. When conversations between German and Israeli politicians take place behind closed doors, however, the niceties can fall away quickly. At least that was German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier's experience during his visit to Israel in January.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman -- with whom Steinmeier already had a tepid relationship -- read out a laundry list of complaints to his colleague from Berlin. It even included lesser issues, like research and scientific cooperation, an area in which Israel claims Germany is imposing unacceptable conditions. Lieberman said Berlin often hides behind European Union positions rather than presenting its own views. But then he got straight to the point. He doesn't feel the Germans are behaving as one would expect from a close partner.
Recent years have seen several instances of tension between Germany and Israel. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have even shouted at each other on the telephone while discussing Israeli policies toward Palestinians. But relations between the two countries have never been as difficult during Merkel's three terms in office as they are now -- on the eve of German-Israeli government consultations scheduled for next Monday in Israel.
Incapable and Unwilling
Officials in Berlin view the Netanyahu government as being both incapable and unwilling when it comes to pushing forward in the peace process with the Palestinians. At the same time, the Israelis feel abandoned by the Germans. The conflict has deteriorated to the point that some are questioning the special relationship status between the two countries. According to Israeli government sources, "special relationship" means that, when in doubt, Germany must side with Israel. That, though, is far from reality at the moment.
The appearance by Martin Schulz, the German president of the European Parliament, before the Knesset last Wednesday seemed to provide the perfect example of what is driving Israeli displeasure with Germany. Schulz criticized the unequal distribution of drinking water between Israelis and Palestinians, asking "How it can be that an Israeli is allowed to use 70 liters of water per day, but a Palestinian only 17?" But he also had to admit that he hadn't checked the figures he cited. Several members of parliament left the plenary hall in protest. Schulz's speech came across in Israel as typical German know-it-all arrogance.
The Israelis are still deeply unhappy with Germany's abstention in a vote before the United Nations General Assembly in December 2012 to grant the Palestinians the status of a "non-member observer state." Leaders in Jerusalem had believed Germany would vote against it. Berlin's vote was particularly important because Israel had long seen Germany as a guarantee that the EU would not be unanimously opposed to Israeli interests.
An Absence of Trust
That no longer appears to be certain. Lieberman reportedly told Steinmeier that Israel wants assurance that Germany will resist the next time the Palestinians submit a membership application to an international body.
Given the absence of trust, small disputes are turning into bigger ones. For example, the EU and Israel recently agreed that European money for research subsidies cannot flow into the occupied areas. The German government now wants that language to be included in two bilateral agreements. The deals relate to research cooperation and the promotion of high-tech firms.
But the Israeli side doesn't want to accept this. Israeli daily Haaretz recently wrote that the decision represents a "significant escalation in European measures against the settlements."
Merkel, of course, is anxious to defuse the tensions. To demonstrate how important relations are, she has called on all of her ministers to travel to Israel next week. She's never taken such a step ahead of government consultations with Israel in the past.
Other initiatives include plans by Labor Minister Andrea Nahles of the SPD to prepare a draft law that would finally ensure that thousands of Jews who worked as slave laborers in ghettos are provided with the entirety of the pensions they are entitled to in time for the meetings. Invoking a provision in the German social law, the federal pension fund has so far only disbursed part of the money.
A compromise also appears to be taking shape in the dispute over research cooperation. Among other things that Germans would like to see in the bilateral treaty is a list of universities that would receive money. In exchange, the clause stipulating that Israeli institutions located in the occupied areas cannot receive funds could be changed. The result would be a compromise that would protect the German government's legal position. And it would not require the Israelis to sign a clause that they feel is overbearing.
Still, Merkel has not indicated any willingness to bend on what is proving to be the biggest sticking point. The chancellor and Foreign Minister Steinmeier both believe that Israeli's settlement policy represents a decisive barrier to the peace process. It's also something they don't shy away from saying in public, much to the Israeli's chagrin. "It is precisely because we are committed to the future of Israel as a Jewish state that we will remain so firm on this point," a source in Merkel's Chancellery stated.