AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 12/2008

Israel's 60th Birthday: Uncritical Merkel Gets Red Carpet Treatment in Israel

By Ralf Beste, Ralf Neukirch and Christoph Schult

Part 2: Germans Wonder at Merkel's Israel Policy

In Germany, it is primarily Merkel's coalition partners who are muttering about her politics. For instance, Rolf Mützenich, a Social Democrat foreign policy expert, complained that the chancellor didn't travel to Ramallah to support the moderate Palestinian government, which he says is also a "vital partner."

Mützenich is also urging a more direct approach with Jerusalem: "The chancellor should make it clear to our Israeli partners that their settlement policy is a violation of the Annapolis agreements." Mützenich was referring to an agreement reached by Israelis and Palestinians last autumn that they would avoid provocations.

His fellow party member, Martin Schulz, the head of the Social Democrat faction in the European Parliament, calls on Merkel to "speak openly among friends" about how the Palestinians are treated. "The joint cabinet session presents an opportunity for the Germans to voice criticism of the resumption of building Jewish settlements."

Jürgen Trittin, deputy leader of the Green Party's parliamentary group -- and a man who is rumored to have ambitions of one day becoming the German foreign minister -- demands criticism of Israel's treatment of the suffering people in the Gaza Strip: "You cannot criticize Hamas, rightly so, for holding the population hostage, and then put a stop to fuel deliveries yourself."

Different Avenues

Even members of Merkel's own Christian Democratic Union and its sister party the Christian Social Union, warn of a growing sense of annoyance among the Arab states. The chairman of the German-Arab parliamentary friendship group, Joachim Hörster, says that it is confusing for countries in the region when the EU sharply condemns the Israeli settlement policy while the relationship between Germany and Israel remains totally unaffected.

There has been no open criticism, however, of the chancellor's policies from her main rivals in the government. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) has remained reserved. He also sees himself as a friend of the Israelis. "Germany has a special responsibility toward the state of Israel, to protect its existence and defend its right to exist," is how he put it in a speech just last week.

At the same time, Steinmeier has clearly pursued different avenues in his Middle East policies. He has initiated diplomatic contacts to Israel's archenemy Syria -- exposing himself to a storm of protest from Jerusalem and the CDU. "The idea is to reduce the number of possible troublemakers," said Steinmeier in his defense, although his efforts have remained fruitless. Damascus has lost interest in a rapprochement with the Germans.

The chancellor has not allowed herself to be put off by such criticism. She says that in addition to Israel, she maintains a good relationship with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Before leaving Berlin, she spoke on the phone with Abbas to hear about the latest developments in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Cozy Evenings Drinking Red Wine

Merkel's relationship with Israel is highly influenced by her years growing up in former East Germany. The Communist government rejected all responsibility for the Holocaust and focused on Communists as being the primary victims of the Nazis. "We didn't learn until later, and I mean this very personally, what the Shoa represented in terms of an immeasurable loss to Germany and to what extent Jewish love for Germany was rejected."

Merkel's ties to Israel extend all the way into her private life. She maintains a friendly relationship with Shimon Stein, the belligerent former Israeli ambassador to Germany. They have spent a number of cozy evenings together drinking red wine. Even Merkel's husband Joachim Sauer, who usually shies away from any involvement in her political affairs, has also joined them on occasion. Stein was even a guest at Merkel's summer home north of Berlin.

As the chairwoman of the CDU, she ensured that the party’s new platform embraces Israel's right to exist "as a Jewish state." This is an important distinction for Jews in Israel who are deeply concerned about the rapidly growing Arab population. And Merkel was the first chancellor to station German soldiers in the Middle East. Since October, 2006, German navy boats have been patrolling the coast of Lebanon as part of the United Nation's UNIFIL forces. Merkel said the mission was necessary to contribute to Israel's security.

When it comes to international relations, the chancellor wants to further enhance cooperation with Israel. In response to a request from Jerusalem, joint development projects will be launched in developing countries -- even in countries in Africa and Asia that have no diplomatic relations with Israel.

It remains to be seen whether these exceptional close ties will eventually lead to a "normal" relationship between the two countries, one that naturally includes both mutual criticism and solidarity. The new Israeli ambassador in Berlin, Yoram Ben-Zeev, recently experienced just how ill at ease Germans can be on the topic of Israel when he spoke with a group of journalists in Munich. During clashes with alleged terrorists in the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces had just killed 120 Palestinians, including many civilians, but none of the reporters asked any questions about the incident.

At the end of the press conference, he addressed the issue himself. "I want to clarify that we don't need to apologize for anything." Faced with a lack of critical questions, he otherwise had no opportunity for a justification.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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