The World from Berlin 'Iran Is a Litmus Test for German-Israeli Ties'

Addressing the German Bundestag Wednesday, Israeli President Shimon Peres warned once more of the threat from Iran. German commentators ask how Berlin should deal with Tehran given the country's special responsibility toward Israel.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel thanks Israeli President Shimon Peres in the Bundestag Wednesday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel thanks Israeli President Shimon Peres in the Bundestag Wednesday.

Germany's special relationship to Israel came under the spotlight once again on Wednesday, when Israeli President Shimon Peres addressed the German parliament, the Bundestag, in a speech marking Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Peres devoted part of his speech to talking about the threat to Israel from Iran, which is widely believed to be working on a nuclear weapons program. "We reject a fanatic regime, which contradicts the United Nations Charter," he said. "A regime which threatens destruction, accompanied by nuclear plants and missiles and who activates terror in its country and other countries. This regime is a danger to the entire world."

Earlier, Bundestag President Norbert Lammert had underlined Germany's unique responsibility regarding Israel. "On issues where Israel's right to exist is threatened, Germany cannot be neutral," Lammert told the assembly. "Some things can be negotiated; the existence of Israel is not one of those things."

The apparent threat to Israel was underlined by comments made by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during a meeting with Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz on Tuesday. "Definitely, the day will come when nations of the region will witness the destruction of the Zionist regime," Khamenei said, according to the Associated Press.

The German government is calling for tougher action on Iran. Peres and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed the issue during a meeting on Tuesday. "Time is running out," Merkel told reporters afterward. She said that it was time to consider additional international sanctions against Iran and said that February would be a "tantalizing month." France will hold the rotating chair of the United Nations Security Council in February and will likely address the issue of sanctions against Iran.

Germany is traditionally one of Iran's most important trading partners, but Berlin has recently been trying to dissuade German companies from doing business with Tehran. On Tuesday, Siemens CEO Peter Löscher announced that the engineering giant was no longer taking orders from Iran. The Siemens board had decided in October 2009 to wind down business with the country, he said.

However statistics released Wednesday showed that German exports to Iran only declined slightly in 2009, despite UN sanctions. German companies exported goods worth about €3.3 billion ($4.6 billion) to Iran in the first 11 months of 2009, down about 8 percent from the previous year. Germany's total exports fell by 19.9 percent in 2009 as a result of the economic crisis.

Writing in Germany's main newspapers Thursday, commentators discussed Germany's special relationship toward Israel and debated what action Berlin should take against Iran.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Chancellor Angela Merkel has talked of Germany's responsibility for Israel's security. But what does this abstract promise actually mean? It is justifiable to debate that question, and it is a testimony to the quality of relations between Germany and Israel that they can carry out such a debate openly. Berlin has reduced the value of credit guarantees it offers firms that do business with Iran, delayed the issuing of licenses and discourages companies from doing business (with Iranian firms). This has been well received in Israel. And yet the question arises whether the German government needs to do more. Germany is one of Iran's most important trading partners."

"Many business leaders are not opposed to tougher sanctions, but few would voluntarily refrain from deals that are legal. The warning that not every legal transaction is legitimate all too often falls on deaf ears. The chancellor should use her influence to persuade Germany's European partners to take action in the debate on sanctions that is now beginning. Then she would not only be giving industry clear guidelines regarding doing business with Iran, but she would also be demonstrating to Tehran the value of Germany's security guarantee to Israel."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"Perhaps it has a deeper significance that Israeli President Shimon Peres addressed the Bundestag precisely at a time when Germany is debating issues of war and peace like seldom before, in the context of Afghanistan. The conclusions that Peres and his country have drawn from the Shoah are quite different from those that the mostly pacifist German population has reached. … Peres sees the defensive power of modern Israel as a direct consequence of the defenselessness of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. For Israelis, 'never again' also means 'never again become victims.' People's lives and their freedom and dignity must sometimes be defended by force."

"The timing of Peres' speech to coincide with the debate on Afghanistan shows the importance of the moral issues raised by the Shoah for present day politics. Those include the question of what help, including military protection, can the world's persecuted peoples expect from us Germans. There are no simple answers to such questions. But it would help a lot if people in Germany were more often reminded of the fact that Hitler's program of destruction was only stopped by military force."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Israel and Germany are today connected to each other in a unique way, against the backdrop of a terrible past. Israel sees democratic Germany as one of its closest allies, while German President Horst Köhler and Chancellor Angela Merkel have declared Israel's right to exist to be a cornerstone of German foreign policy."

"The repressive Iranian regime, which makes threats of destruction, supports terrorism and wants to build a nuclear bomb, does not only pose a danger to Israel. It is regrettable that Russia and China have played down or even denied that risk in the UN Security Council. This position has hindered the international solidarity and determination which is necessary in dealing with Iran and which the German government has always sought. It is also regrettable that Iran has ignored Washington's offer of dialogue. Chancellor Merkel has said that time is running out. Israel hopes that Germany's words are meant seriously. The nuclear dispute with Iran is becoming a litmus test for German-Israeli ties, which is and will remain a special relationship."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Every ceremony to commemorate Auschwitz and the murder of the European Jews should really pose the agonizing question: To what extent did the German population know about, or at least could have known about, the extermination of the Jews? Recent works by German historians describe the murder of the Jews as having been an 'open secret.' What prompted the vast majority of Germans to look away or even get rich from the property that the Jews left behind? Do we live today in a society where ignoring injustices is no longer acceptable?"

"It is obvious that such questions would prompt German introspection if they were asked during a memorial ceremony in the Bundestag. But when Jewish survivors, especially from abroad, are invited (to address the Bundestag), the same ritual takes place every time. The German side vows that the memory of the Holocaust is part of the German identity, talks about Germany's responsibility for the Jews and for Israel and also draws attention to efforts to rebuild the Jewish communities in Germany."

"But what should the guest speakers say in return? Should Shimon Peres on such an occasion breach diplomatic etiquette and talk about the Germans' real responsibilities, for example in relation to the hardship suffered by many Holocaust survivors in Israel? The ritual does not allow such questions."

-- David Gordon Smith


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