'Significant Escalation': Tensions Flare in German-Israeli Relations

By Ralf Neukirch

The West Bank Jewish settlement Givat Zeev near Jerusalem in 2011: Angela Merkel believes settlements are a decisive barrier to the peace process. Zoom
REUTERS

The West Bank Jewish settlement Givat Zeev near Jerusalem in 2011: Angela Merkel believes settlements are a decisive barrier to the peace process.

German-Israeli relations are at a nadir as German Chancellor Merkel begins her third term. When leaders of the countries meet next week, deals on smaller issues may be possible, but divisions over Israeli settlements will persist.

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.

Translated from the German by Daryl Lindsey

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1. German relations with Israel
turnipseed 02/18/2014
Here in America we have a pro-Israeli lobby which is very powerful; I would call it an Israeli Mafia. In Germany this does not exist in the form of Jewish organizations but it does exist in the form of necessary German guilt for the Nazi Holocaust. But in America as well as in Germany and elsewhere the Holocaust should not be allowed to force governments to support unjustified right-wing Israeli policies which hamper peace and bring more hatred and instability to the Middle East. German is in a difficult position. If Americans would shove the Israeli Lobby off the stage it would help Germans as well.
2. optional
peskyvera 02/18/2014
How much longer are the Nazi atrocities going to be used as a blackmail instrument by israel? What is of importance today is the shameful and degrading way israel is treating Palestinians. The persecuted have turned into the persecutors. And as usual, if everything else fails...yell 'anti Semitism'.
3. Germany and Israel
patang 02/18/2014
It is good learn that the German government is taking a stand against mighty Israel.It is about time, German people have been sent on a guilt trip for the past 6 decades.It has paid enough in both emotion and monetarily. The truth should be the scale by which actions are measured. Israel does what no other nation does on the planet, besides occupation, building new homes in total defiance of international law, total disregard for human right heavy handed retaliation for people's protest for depriving them of basic human needs. It is time for the Europeans to take a stand against the spoilt country they helped raise after world war II. This country is the cause of all the chaos around it.The United States created the so called Arab spring so that the region remains in chaos and Israel can be dominant there, and bully the Palestinians
4. settlements
obmedh 02/18/2014
Look at a map. The simple fact is that there is no room to build houses in the area around tel-aviv Jerusalem unless they violate the green line. Prices of apartments in Israel proper are just too high and the Jewish population is growing too rapidly. What is more the Jews have money and they want a secure environment for their families. This means settlements east of the green line. It is the only way that Jewish families can live somewhere and raise children and still get to work in the industrial center of the nation. Politicians can do a lot but they cannot stand in the way of demographics and population expansion and basic human drives and needs. The palestinians are like the american indians trying to defend their traditional way of life i the face of european settlement. The outcome was inevitable and everyone knew it. The american indians were also pushed off their territory and confined to reservations and the same will happen to the palestinians.Somehow an accommodation must be made i which the Palestinians accept to build their state on land If the Arabs are smart they will understand the situation and make a deal for the best land possible. There are possibilities for palestinian control on interior areas that is not vital to the Israeli economy. In other words palestinian reservations in places that do not block and prevent expansion of the main Jewish cities like Tel aviv and Jerusalem. In these areas the arabs can preserve their culture and language and religion just as the Indians have managed to do in the united states.
5. It is not just settlements which cause trouble!
Inglenda2 02/18/2014
The area formerly called Palestine has never been peaceful for long, during the years in which history has been recorded. Nevertheless, by creating a new state of Israel, in 1948, on land which to a very large extent had not been legally obtained, the UN helped to sow yet more hate into the area. Of course the citizens of this country now have a right to live in peace, if they so desire. But if the borders of the Israeli settlements from 1948 are compared to those currently claimed, it becomes obvious that the one-sided protection of Jewish rights, has led to an enormous disadvantage to the former native inhabitants. Germany has two problems in this respect, without the policies of the 1930’s, there would have been no reason for Israel to be founded. Now that it exists, it cannot subsist without international help. The expansion of the country however, can only continue to occur by force and exactly this is the point, where every democracy has the duty to say stop!
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