Foreign Policy Shift Skepticism of German-Israeli Friendship Growing in Berlin

Top Berlin officials are becoming less inclined to unconditionally support Israel. With the two-state solution increasingly unlikely, there is concern that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is "instrumentalizing" Germany's friendship.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Foto: REUTERS / AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

By now, Angela Merkel is used to it. Whenever she meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the confidential content of their discussion appears in an Israeli newspaper a few days later.

But the story that appeared in Israel Hayom, a free, pro-Netanyahu newspaper on Feb. 16 surprised even the German chancellor. "Merkel: This Isn't the Time for Two States," was the headline. That was the chancellor's message to Netanyahu, the paper claimed, during the German-Israeli government consultations that had just taken place in Berlin.

Merkel's advisors were furious. The Israeli premier had apparently twisted her words to such a degree that it seemed as though she were supporting his policies. In fact, though, Merkel had repeatedly made it clear to Netanyahu that she believes the effects of Israeli settlement construction in the occupied territories are disastrous. The settlement policy, she believes, makes it unlikely that a viable Palestinian state can be established in accordance with plans aimed at a two-state solution. Any other approach, Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are convinced, would ultimately transform Israel into an apartheid regime. Netanyahu, however, has not shown himself to be the least bit impressed by such arguments.

The Israeli prime minister has always been able to depend on Berlin ultimately standing together with Israel and not joining the country's most vocal critics. But many, particularly in the Berlin Foreign Ministry, have begun wondering if Germany sent the wrong signals in the past. An example that is frequently mentioned is Chancellor Merkel's speech in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in 2008 when she said that Israeli security is part of Germany's "raison d'état."

"The perception has been growing in the German government that Netanyahu is instrumentalizing our friendship," says Rolf Mützenich, deputy floor leader for the Social Democrats (SPD) in parliament. The SPD is Merkel's junior coalition partner and Foreign Minister Steinmeier is a leading member of the party. Mützenich says it would be a welcome change if the Foreign Ministry and the Chancellery were to rethink the relationship with Israel.

'We Must Express This Concern'

"Israel's current policies are not contributing to the country remaining Jewish and democratic," says Norbert Röttgen, a member of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament. "We must express this concern more clearly to Israel."

There are indications that the German government's approach is changing. Prior to important votes in the EU or at the United Nations, Netanyahu generally calls the German foreign minister to request his support for the Israeli position. The same procedure was followed early this year when EU foreign ministers sat down to write a resolution on the Middle East conflict. The text had been prepared by the ambassadors of the 28 EU member states and was relatively balanced.

Before EU foreign ministers met in Brussels, though, a copy of the text found its way to Israel. Netanyahu, who is Israel's foreign minister in addition to being its prime minister, grabbed the telephone to call Steinmeier as usual. Sources say that he was particularly concerned about the paragraph in the resolution that criticized the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. "I'm counting on you," Netanyahu said before hanging up.

Up to that point, Netanyahu could always be relatively sure that Israel's supporters would defend the Israeli position. But on this Monday in January, things turned out differently. Netanyahu's pleas were ignored and Steinmeier threw his support in Brussels behind the text as written. "Settlements are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible," the resolution reads.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

Foto: AP/dpa

It is an indication that times may be changing. Even avowed Israel supporters like the former German ambassador in Tel Aviv, Andreas Michaelis, who is now the Foreign Ministry's political director, expressed opposition in internal consultations to accommodating the Israeli prime minister. The Chancellery has likewise lost hope that the peace process can be revived so long as Netanyahu remains in office. During the visit of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Berlin two weeks ago, Merkel was demonstrative in her support. "I understand why President Abbas continually seeks out the Security Council," she says. Even accusations from Netanyahu that EU labeling rules for products made in the settlements are akin to an anti-Jewish boycott are no longer taken seriously in the Chancellery. Merkel's foreign policy advisor Christoph Heusgen is supportive of the EU approach.

'Increasingly Unlikely'

Netanyahu himself is responsible for critics of Israel having become more powerful. Almost 3 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, but the Jewish population has now risen to 350,000, spread out over 125 settlements. The colonies fragment the region: It would be impossible to create a cohesive Palestinian state without clearing a large number of the settlements.

"A two-state settlement is becoming increasingly unlikely," wrote the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in a recent analysis. "The financial and political costs of implementing it rise with every settlement unit needing to be demolished and with every settler needing to be evacuated and compensated."

A majority of the Israeli cabinet is now openly opposed to a Palestinian state. One example is Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, who is also head of the pro-settler party The Jewish Home. "Israel cannot withdraw from more territory and cannot allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state," he said in 2015.

The German Foreign Ministry has carefully collected all such quotes. Officials there are now simulating alternative scenarios, and most of them are not optimistic. Their focus is on possible alternatives to the founding of a Palestinian state.

Not Backing Down

Would Israel annex the areas in question? And would the country be prepared to grant Palestinians in such a state equal rights, with the risk that Jews could soon be in the minority? Or would Israel establish an apartheid regime similar to the one that once held sway in South Africa?

These are exactly the questions that US Secretary of State John Kerry posed during a December forum in Washington, DC. He warned that the "two-state solution" is threatening to become just a "throwaway phrase" and encouraged Israelis to confront the difficult questions. "We can't go back and forth and maintain the norms of diplomacy and pretend."

Could the German foreign minister hold a similar speech? In January, those in favor of Steinmeier doing just that floated a trial balloon. They wrote a draft speech for the minister in preparation for his appearance in early February at the Academy of Sciences and Literature in Mainz. The draft speech did not blame Israel exclusively for the failure of the peace process, but it asked questions that a German foreign minister has never dared ask in public. Many in Steinmeier's circle liked the manuscript, but the pro-Israeli members of his staff ultimately won out. Steinmeier's office manager Jens Plötner removed the decisive passages from the speech.

But the Israel skeptics aren't backing down. They are planning on trying again ahead of Steinmeier's next speech on the issue.