Ausgabe 12/2008

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

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has become Israel's staunchest ally in Europe. This week, the country has pulled out all the stops to welcome the German leader. Back home, though, many wish Merkel would finally speak up about Israeli excesses in the Gaza Strip.

By , and

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has received no lack of warm welcomes on her trips abroad. The US President invited her to his ranch in Texas, the King of Saudi Arabia presented her with a small model of an oasis, complete with golden camels, and the Emir of Abu Dhabi deeply regretted that she had no time to visit his desert tent.

But the red carpet treatment prepared for Merkel during her visit to Israel this week eclipses all previous receptions.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert personally met his guest at Ben Gurion Airport on Sunday -- an honor that until now he has only bestowed on George W. Bush. Merkel then helicoptered down to the Negev Desert to visit the grave of David Ben Gurion, the father of modern Israel. There, she was hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres. On Monday, Olmert accompanied Merkel to the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, where foreign dignitaries normally lay a wreath alone. "The chancellor's visit has the same status as a visit by the US president," Olmert's chief of staff told an advance delegation.

On Tuesday, to congratulate Israel on the 60th anniversary of its founding, Merkel will become the first foreign head of government to have the honor of addressing the Knesset, Israel's parliament. Until now, only heads of state were granted that honor.

'Pulling Out All the Stops'

Although political visits to Israel are often enough characterized by some last-minute improvisation, this time every detail was agreed on weeks in advance. The tight timeline on Sunday, including her outing with Peres, was just the beginning. Kibbutz visits, high level government talks, and a banquet in her honor held by in the foyer of the parliament are all precisely scheduled. "They're pulling out all the stops," said a top German diplomat.

On Monday, half the German cabinet -- another first -- join their Israeli colleagues for consultations. In the future, such meetings are to take place on an annual basis, something that has only been reserved for Germany's leading European partners.

But over and above the details of the schedule, it is a visit steeped in extraordinary symbolism. Sixty-three years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the German cabinet is meeting in Jerusalem -- a milestone in the complex relations between Israelis and Germans. Pursuing a "special relationship" with the Jewish state has been a cornerstone of German policy since the days of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in the 1950s. Many Israelis, though, have long wondered if Germany’s public avowals could really be trusted. With this historical gesture, Olmert is demonstrating that he now considers the issue settled. And he is showing that he considers Germany to be Israel's most important partner after the US.

This public demonstration of the new close relationship between the two countries represents a personal success for Merkel. The chancellor has made special solidarity with Israel the foundation of her foreign policy, on the same level as the recently rekindled friendship with the US and her critical approach to China and Russia.

It's very possible that March 17, 2008, will mark the beginning of a Merkel doctrine which says, at its core, that Israel is a close partner on good days and bad -- even when it makes mistakes. Clearly, one of the basic tenets of the chancellor's close relationship with Israel is that all public criticism of Jerusalem should be avoided.

Discussions More Effective than Criticism

When the Israeli army attacked the Gaza Strip in early March and over 120 Palestinians died, Merkel said nothing. Even the pope called for both sides to immediately cease all hostilities. And Merkel made no comment when Olmert's government announced two weeks ago -- contrary to previous promises -- that Israel would again begin expanding settlements in the occupied territories.

Even a year and a half ago, the chancellor refrained from directly displaying any unease with Israel's military operation in Lebanon. When the Israeli air force killed four UNIFIL soldiers, she merely expressed her "deep regret." Other European statesmen like France's then President Jacques Chirac vehemently condemned the incident.

In contrast to Germany's relations with China and Russia, the chancellor is convinced that heated criticism of Israel will not produce a change in policy. She feels that internal discussions are more effective. Merkel maintains that the Israeli government listens to Germany's advice because it feels that it can rely on its special European partner. This also enhances Germany’s importance in the eyes of Arab countries, say advisors to the chancellor. This summer a major conference on the Middle East will be held in Berlin to support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Her pronounced close relations to the only democracy in the region give Merkel a welcome bonus effect. Due to their sympathy for the Palestinians, the Americans see most Europeans as unreliable partners in the Middle East. Anyone who stands staunchly at Israel's side gains influence in Washington.

Nevertheless, Merkel's policies remain controversial. Critics say that Germany is sacrificing its credibility among Arab countries. And even in Israel, Germany's policy of unconditional solidarity has at times been viewed with astonishment.

"It looks to me as if the chancellor defines friendship as not intervening," says Yossi Beilin, leader of Israel's dovish Meretz Party and one of the architects of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s. "That's not friendship. A real friend gets involved in the peace process."

Even Ophir Pines-Paz from the Labor Party, who is Chairman of the Knesset Interior Committee, hopes "that Germany will play a greater role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." And Israeli Minister Yaakov Edri feels that "A good friend like Merkel can of course express criticism, even in a speech before the Knesset."


© DER SPIEGEL 12/2008
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