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 Germanys 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 Germanys 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."
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."
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 partys 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