Rift in German-Israeli Association German Politicians Under Fire for Criticizing Israel

A dispute is brewing in the German-Israeli Association over a fundamental question: How openly should German politicians be allowed to criticize the policies of the Jewish state?

German Development Minister Dirk Niebel: "It's okay to tell Israel when it's making mistakes."

German Development Minister Dirk Niebel: "It's okay to tell Israel when it's making mistakes."

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Dirk Niebel, a member of Germany's pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), isn't known for his reticence. But when it comes to criticizing Israel, Niebel, who spent a year living in a kibbutz as a young man, has always been cautious. As a sign of his solidarity, he became vice-president of the German-Israeli Association (DIG), a staunchly pro-Israeli group, in 2000. It was a close relationship, at least until last year.

As Germany's Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, he had planned a trip to the Gaza Strip last June to tour a sewage treatment plant in Palestinian territory funded by the German government. When the Israelis denied him access to the plant, Niebel referred to the decision as a "major foreign policy mistake." In the heat of the moment, he added that "time is running out" for Israel.

The loudest criticism of his undiplomatic statement did not come from Jerusalem, but from the home front, namely from several fellow members of the DIG. "Niebel should have known that Israel, given the tense situation, has little understanding for demonstrative visits, no matter how well-intentioned," chided DIG officials Claudia Korenke and Jochen Feilcke.

Since then there has been a fundamental dispute among Israel supporters over the direction of their movement, a dispute fraught with insults and accusations. It revolves around power, positions and the question of how much criticism of Israel's policy should be allowed among its friends.

Historical Obligation

Because of the Holocaust and Germany's responsibility for World War II, solidarity with the Jewish state founded in 1948 is a fundamental tenet of German policy. Israel's security is "part of my country's raison d'être," Merkel said in a speech to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, in 2008.

Since the establishment of the DIG in 1966, supporting the institution has been seen as the right thing to do in German politics. Its members include former Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping, former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and former Labor Minister Norbert Blüm. Reinhold Robbe, the former commissioner for the federal armed forces, is the group's chairman. The DIG receives financial support from the federal government and has close ties to the Israeli embassy. All parties with seats in the German parliament, the Bundestag, except the Left Party, appoint a vice-president to the DIG.

But the association's current behavior is anything but friendly. The dispute erupted after the Israeli army boarded a Turkish ship carrying aid supplies for the Palestinians last May. Nine people died in the incident, and the Israeli actions were criticized worldwide. The Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, also adopted a unanimous resolution demanding that Israel lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip, much to the irritation of the fundamentalists in the DIG surrounding Feilcke, a former member of parliament for the CDU.

The 68-year-old, chairman of the DIG group for Berlin and nearby Potsdam, says: "Israel is a thorn in the flesh of an undemocratic world. It needs our full support."

Feilcke doesn't like it when Niebel criticizes Israel, but he was even more irate over the Bundestag resolution, which the DIG vice-presidents supported. "I thought there was something wrong with them," he says.

'Up to Your Knees in Ideology'

At the association's annual meeting in the fall, Feilcke and his allies demanded the ouster of the members of parliament from their positions as DIG vice-presidents. When he failed, Feilcke resigned from the board. But he has no intention of giving up the fight. In a piece in the upcoming issue of the DIG's magazine, Feilcke argues that the organization must support positions "independently of Bundestag resolutions or decisions at party conventions."

"People like Feilcke are no longer in office, and that's a good thing," says Niebel. Marieluise Beck, a member of parliament for the Green Party and one of the DIG vice-presidents, complains about "party line enforcers" who shouldn't even be in the DIG.

Beck wrote an essay for the DIG to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel. At the end, she wrote about the "occupation policy" in Palestine and said it was a "gift" that Israelis and Germans could discuss such issues today.

But Beck did not expect the emotionally charged objections that followed. "It's hard to imagine how I'm being attacked by some members of the DIG," says Beck. For weeks, she received emails questioning her friendship to Israel. The politician, who has served for many years in the German-Israeli group of parliamentarians. and on the board of the DIG, is now convinced that "whenever you make a statement, you're up to your knees in ideology."

Niebel has drawn his own conclusions. "Friendship with Israel doesn't mean blind obedience," says the minister. "It's okay to tell Israel when it's making mistakes, behind the scenes at first, but if that doesn't work, then publicly."

At the last annual meeting, Niebel, citing time constraints, decided not to seek another term as a DIG vice-president. "But the criticism also made it an easier departure for me," he said.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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