Germany's Dilemma Critics Want Tougher Berlin Stance Against Israel

Relations between Germany and Israel are at a crossroads. Is it possible for the German government to continue to steadfastly support the country even as Jerusalem continues to refuse to allow the Palestinians to establish their own state?

By , , , René Pfister and


The man who changed relations between Germany and Israel pauses to reflect as he sits in his living room in the western German town of Königswinter. "The situation is pretty hopeless," he says. The comment sounds both disappointed and disenchanted.

His hair has receded and the wrinkles on his face are more pronounced, but he remains as sharp as ever. Rudolf Dressler, 74, is describing the current situation in Israel and expressing his deep concern.

He served as the German ambassador in Jerusalem for five years. In 2005, as Dressler's term in Israel was already drawing to a close, he wrote an essay that included a sentence in which he expressed Germany's unconditional solidarity with Israel more radically than anyone before him: "The secured existence of Israel lies in Germany's national interest and is thus part of our reason of state." It was this turn of phrase, coined by Dressler, that German Chancellor Angela Merkel incorporated into her speech before the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, three years later.

Dramatic Developments

Today, Dressler has become a sharp critic of current Israeli policies. He calls the development in Israel "dramatic." Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just won the elections based on a platform in which he clearly opposes the creation of a Palestinian state. Dressler is urging German politicians to make sure that this results in consequences. Germany has already waited too long, he says.

For obvious reasons, Germany has a unique relationship with Israel. Germany is historically linked to the Jewish state like no other country. In fact, Israel's very existence would be unthinkable without the Holocaust. Israel was created as the new home for the Jewish people, a place where they could remain secure from persecution and pogroms after the Germans had murdered 6 million of them during World War II.

Shortly after the war, the fledgling country of West Germany faced one of its greatest challenges as it sought to forge close ties with Israel. In September 1952, when the Reparations Agreement was signed by then German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, the two men didn't even shake hands. Earlier, the delegations had been forbidden from speaking German -- the language of the perpetrators -- during negotiations, although many Jewish negotiators had German roots.

Old Certainties Crumble

Today, that initial coolness has warmed into a close relationship. In Israel, Merkel ranks among the most popular foreign politicians, and Berlin is all the rage among young Israelis traveling abroad these days. Likewise, in one-and-a-half weeks Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will travel to Berlin to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic ties.

Yet suddenly the old certainties are beginning to crumble. In all probability, Netanyahu will be reelected by the Knesset as Israeli prime minister, putting a man in power who during the elections openly spoke out against a Palestinian state. Although two-thirds of Israelis favor a two-state solution, the majority of the population rejects the notion of returning the land where settlements have been built on the West Bank.

This puts German politicians in a moral dilemma: How should they deal with a country that is constantly pursuing a regime of occupation and whose treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories occasionally resembles apartheid? Germany is one of Israel's most important arms suppliers. In recent years, the Germans exported highly advanced submarines to the Israelis that can be armed with nuclear warheads. This cost German taxpayers over €1 billion ($1.12 billion).

Of course, one of the reasons given for this move was that, in view of its history, Germany has an obligation to guarantee Israel's security. An additional moral justification referred to Israel's stalwart position for many decades as the only functioning democracy in the Middle East. But what if Israel decides to permanently revoke all civil rights to the Palestinians in the occupied territories -- and this can no longer be glossed over with diplomatic clichés?

'Clear, Unmistakable Language'

In Berlin a debate is unfolding over whether the old rules still apply in dealing with Israel, only this time it is not being led by right-wing firebrands or errant left-wingers, who have always viewed Israel as a satellite of American imperialism. Instead, these issues are being raised by outspoken friends of Israel. "If statements by Netanyahu cause the two-state solution to lose every shred of credibility, it will be difficult to find Palestinian negotiating partners who are willing to reach a peaceful solution," warns Elmar Brok, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the European Parliament in Brussels -- and a member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Removing the prospect of a two-state solution is "irresponsible -- even from an Israeli perspective," he says.

Other German politicians have similar opinions. "If the occupation status becomes permanent, we have to ask ourselves what this means in terms of our policy toward Israel," says the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German parliament, Ruprecht Polenz of the CDU. What's more, the deputy leader of the parliamentary group of the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD), Rolf Mützenich, warns: "If the new Israeli government abandons the two-state solution, this would constitute a new situation that we would have to reevaluate." He adds that the Israeli government must then realize "that the German government would have to assume a different basic stance."

The Foreign Ministry in Berlin has a similar view. Officials there take statements made by Netanyahu during the election campaign "very seriously," despite the fact that he revised them after the election. Still, what does this mean for German policies? For years now, Berlin has addressed Israel with a "clear, unmistakable language," just as Dressler is urging, and openly criticized the ongoing construction of settlements -- yet without any success. To achieve something would require a more pronounced distancing combined with pressure, deadlines and ultimatums. "We could limit trade with Israel, but also curb support in the form of arms deliveries, without affecting Israeli security," argues Dressler.

A Matter of the Heart for Merkel

Still, this is precisely what puts Merkel in a dilemma: On the one hand, she is losing patience with a stubborn prime minister and Israeli policies that, Berlin is convinced, pose a risk to the actual security interests of the Jewish state. On the other hand, Merkel doesn't want to call into question the old rule: When in doubt, favor Israel. Every German chancellor has adhered to this unwritten policy -- and Merkel, who hails from eastern Germany, has done so to a slightly greater degree than her predecessors. For Merkel, who didn't fully come to terms with Germany's guilt toward the Jews until she was an adult and didn't get to know the state of Israel until she was a politician, Israel is not a mental concept but rather a matter of the heart, according to someone who has known her for a long time. Indeed, the deep rift with Israeli policy is "a very emotional issue for her."

At the same time, the personal relationship between Merkel and Netanyahu is the worst that has ever existed between an Israeli prime minister and a German head of government. "The chemistry just isn't right," says someone who knows them both very well. In Merkel's eyes, Netanyahu is simply not playing by the rules of international politics.

On the phone and in public, the disappointed German chancellor criticizes the Israeli prime minister for his settlements policy and his lack of effort in brokering a peace with the Palestinians -- but to no avail. If push comes to shove, Netanyahu apparently sees his own political survival as more important than cultivating a good relationship with the chancellor, says Yoram Ben-Zeev, who was the Israeli ambassador in Berlin until the end of 2011. Officials in Jerusalem say that the Israeli prime minister can still rely on the unwavering support of the Germans.

Tapping German Guilt

If need be, Netanyahu reminds German politicians of the guilt that weighs upon their nation's shoulders. When German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier broached the settlements issue during a visit to Israel in 2009, Netanyahu reportedly quipped that the West Bank "cannot be judenrein," a Nazi term meaning "clean of Jews" and used to designate areas that had been "cleansed" of Jewish presence during the Holocaust.

President Rivlin has long campaigned for an Israeli state that extends from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. If Israel intends to remain a democracy, though, the Palestinians in the currently occupied areas will have to receive full civil rights. But, in a recent opinion poll, one-third of the respondents said that they even favored revoking voting rights for Arab-Israelis.

Jerusalem appears to be doing its best to make life difficult for Palestinians in the West Bank so as many of them as possible will leave the country. German aid organizations have also felt the brunt of this policy.

Riad Othman is standing on a hillside in the Hebron Hills in the West Bank. A wind generator is turning nearby and a number of solar panels are reflecting sunlight in the distance. "It's German technology," says the development worker. The wind buffets the plastic tarps of the tents in which Palestinian families live. They have no access to the power grid, which supplies an Israeli settlement just a few hundred meters away.

Othman, who heads the office of the Medico International aid organization, has been fighting for a permit for 20 energy plants -- primarily funded with German taxpayer money -- to supply some 180 Palestinian families with electricity. But the Israeli administrative agency for the occupied territories has been blocking his efforts. "In three years, we haven't received a single permit," says Othman.

Two-State Solution Still Possible

Medico is not the only applicant who is frustrated with Israeli authorities. Nearly all Palestinian construction projects are turned down in what is known as Area C, which is the 62 percent of the West Bank that is under full Israeli control. In recent years, Israeli settlements here have been consistently expanded, making a two-state solution ever more unlikely.

This is commonly referred to as the "one-state reality." Meanwhile, Berlin is continuing to pursue the goal of a Palestinian state. "There is no alternative to the two-state solution," say high-ranking German officials, who point out that it is still possible to make a connection between the northern and southern West Bank, and that the decisive E1 area has not yet been settled. "With the settlement of E1, Israel would cross a red line," say officials in Berlin. That sounds like a threat, but it remains to be seen what steps Germany could take. Many Israeli intellectuals have long been urging Germany to abandon its historically rooted restraint toward Jerusalem. They are calling for pressure -- in the interest of Israel.

On a tranquil Wednesday night, historian Tom Segev is sitting in his living room in West Jerusalem and reminiscing about his childhood. On a shelf are books by German author Erich Kästner. Segev spoke German with his parents who emigrated to Palestine in 1935 to escape the Nazis, but sorely missed Germany. Segev first came to Berlin as a student in the 1960s. The city seemed gloomy and history was depressingly present everywhere he looked.

Today, Segev, 70, sees Germany in a positive light. He believes that the Germans have drawn the right conclusions from their past. "What the Germans demand of themselves, they can also demand of Israel," he says. "Their constant, unconditional support is only damaging." Segev is particularly critical of the German chancellor. "She could exert far more pressure to influence the construction of settlements."

Should Germany Exert Pressure?

Most EU countries have long been calling on Germany to abandon its policy of restraint. Even representatives of countries that were victims of the Nazi regime say that Germany's past is no reason to treat the Israeli government with kid gloves. "There are two countries in the world that can effectively exert pressure on Israel: the US and Germany," says Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn. "I would welcome it if Germany would use its key role, for example, by making further arms deliveries contingent upon progress in the peace process," he says.

In fact, there are initial signs that Berlin is slowly distancing itself from its traditional unconditional support of Israel. The first clear crack in its policy appeared in November 2012, when the UN General Assembly voted on granting the state of Palestine a non-member observer status. Germany abstained.

The German government has a number of means of exerting pressure on Jerusalem. Many European countries are opting for unilateral recognition of Palestine. Last year, Sweden became the first EU member country to take this step, and the majority of the members of the parliaments in France, Portugal, the UK, Ireland and Spain have come out in support of recognizing the country.

Berlin favors a more active role by the UN Security Council in the Middle East conflict. Council members France and Britain are pushing for a resolution that determines the parameters for a solution and issues an ultimatum. This is also a way of exerting pressure, officials in Berlin point out.

Nevertheless, proposals to introduce EU sanctions against products from the territories illegally occupied by Israel have come to nothing, primarily due to German resistance. "The biggest foot-draggers are in Berlin," says an EU diplomat. An urgent reminder on the matter issued by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini two weeks ago was signed by 16 EU foreign ministers, including the British and the French, but not their German counterpart.

There has only been one issue in the past where Germany has overridden Israeli interests, and this was during the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Ignoring Israel's protests, Berlin pushed for a successful conclusion to the negotiations -- and it did so despite the fact that Chancellor Merkel had explicitly linked her understanding of the "reason of state" with the Iran issue.

It would be a painful blow to Israel if Germany were to limit its arms exports to the country. Until now, this subject has been taboo. There was only one situation in which Berlin apparently attempted to link an arms delivery to progress in the peace process. This was two years ago, when Jerusalem expressed interest in purchasing four corvettes. The Israelis asked for a discount for the ships, similar to the gesture of friendship that they had received from the German government on the sale of Dolphin submarines.

But, in May 2014, Merkel's foreign policy advisor Christoph Heusgen informed Israeli National Security Advisor Yossi Cohen that there would be no price reduction. Heusgen said that it would be virtually impossible to gain a majority in the German parliament, the Bundestag, in favor of such a concession funded by German taxpayers. Merkel's chief diplomat said that this was due to the failure of the peace process and the ongoing construction of settlements in the occupied territories. In the end, however, Germany stuck to its old policy. Heusgen was unable to push through any changes. The Chancellery agreed with the Finance Ministry to grant a subsidy to the tune of roughly €115 million.

How does one say to a friend that he is making a mistake without jeopardizing the friendship? Germany has neither the will nor the ability to question the solidarity that it owes Israel. At the same time, however, it cannot accept that Israel continues to disregard human rights and democratic principles.

Germany is searching for a way out of this dilemma and, no matter what path it takes, it is essential that it always acts in the interests of the security of Israel. Then the pressure is justified, whether it is exerted via the UN, the EU or arms exports.

By Nicola Abé, Christiane Hoffmann, Horand Knaup, René Pfister and Christoph Schult

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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stanleynadel 05/06/2015
"whose treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories occasionally resembles apartheid?" Have Germans forgotten their own occupation so quickly? When Germany was occupied by the US, UK, France & USSR was that also Apartheid? There were zones closed to Germans & roads reserved for the occupiers--and that is often the case with territories occupied after wars. The issue is occupation and the Apartheid analogy is a bad one, especially given the legal equality in Israel of Arab (or Palestinian) Israelis who sometimes even hold high offices.
Inglenda2 05/07/2015
2. Not who we are, it is what we do that counts
The events of the last century should have been a lesson to the whole of humanity. Instead, we can observe how the facts and realities, of that time, have been and are being misused, for political, national and financial reasons. Nobody, who has an accurate knowledge of history and an understanding of honesty, could possibly give one country, or one people, alone the blame for what happened. Yet this has been and is still being done! Some words of the Bundes-President this week, will have poured salt into the wounds of many innocent people who suffered during, and after WW2. For at least a quarter of the German people, 1945 was a horror, not a blessing. These misfortunate citizens are deliberately ignored by politicians. They would not fit in with the post war fables, which have been spread to pacify the populace. Were we to use the same measure of critic towards Israel, we could rightly be called anti-Semitic. It is not the majority of Jews who are responsible for what the government is doing, because most people want nothing more than to live in peace. However, in the media, one speaks of Israel, just as one spoke of Germany. Not just the fascists in the governments of either country were/are given the blame, the whole population is condemned.
turnipseed 05/07/2015
3. Germany and Israel
Of course Germany needs always to take special care with Jewish subjects. But after more than a half century after the Holocaust it can be legitimate for Germany to view Israel in a more normal way. In fact, in the face of increasing Fascism in Israel, both secular and religious, Germany can show that it is truly now a democracy and a good member of the international community by standing up for what is good and true even if it offends some Jews. It would be best if Jews themselves would stand up for what is good and true but they do not always do this, as in their longstanding denial of the Armenian genocide. If Jews won't follow their own religious and historical values whey cannot Germans take their place? They can and should.
gringocarioca 05/09/2015
After mutual recognition between the PLO and Israel in Oslo there was a sharp split in the Palestinian government into practically two different entities. At least one of them, the Gaza/Hamas branch, does not recognize Israel right to exist and is dedicated to the destruction of Israel and the elimination of Jews (rings a bell?) from Palestine. With whom of these entities exactly is Israel supposed to make peace? With the one representing less than half of the Palestinians, or with the one dedicated for its destruction? Any criticism in Germany over the Palestinian withdraw from the peace process?
Idan 05/09/2015
5. The problem is more complex than u think
Hi, I have read your comments here, I am originally from Israel , but nowadays I live in other place, The problem is that the Palestinians throughout the history didn't accept the idea that Israel should be a state of the Jewish people, some of our Prime Ministers offered them to solve the issue by going back from the so called nowadays occupation areas , but they didn't accept and choose violence , when Israel Left Gaze missiles they shot missiles over almost 8 years.. BTW, the origin of so called Palestinians is from Jordan,Egypt and Lebanon which came to work on the land of Israel.Palestine - was the name that gave to Israel Land by occupiers and there were jewish people there also not only arabs , some jewish people bought their land, but the Palestinians said they don't belong there. The arabs have 22 countries, and the Jewish have only tiny one.. which created as a result of WW2 and all the violence they suffered. The situation is bad.. but what do u think ,Israel should do?
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