Israel and Germany, Milk That Has Soured

German-Israel ties are in danger, regardless of the festive atmosphere surrounding Angela Merkel's visit.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The Prime Minister’s Office has tried hard to imbue the German-Israeli summit that began Monday evening with a festive atmosphere. But the 15 German ministers who accompanied Chancellor Angela Merkel to Jerusalem — like the flags, ceremonies and red carpets — are nothing but a dusting of makeup over the scars Benjamin Netanyahu’s five years in office have left on the bilateral relationship.

Shortly after landing, in a brief statement before meeting Netanyahu for dinner, Merkel said she and her ministers came because “we wanted to show you in this way that this is indeed a very strong friendship.” The visit, she added, will focus on Germany’s efforts “to secure the future of the state of Israel,” which requires “the two-state solution … a Jewish state of Israel and alongside it a Palestinian state.”

The first German-Israeli joint cabinet meeting took place in 2007. Merkel began the tradition with then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whom she considered a personal friend. Afterward, she said she hoped to visit Israel at least once a year. But it’s been more than three years since she last set foot here.

Her last visit, in January 2011, was tense, due to deep-seated differences with Netanyahu on both the Palestinian issue and the Egyptian revolution. She expressed her view of Netanyahu’s policies in a candid speech at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Since then, the divisions and distrust between the two have only grown. Almost every meeting or phone call in recent years has involved tension, confrontations, sometimes even shouting. Merkel appeared to feel that Netanyahu was at best not keeping his promises on the Palestinian issue and at worst simply lying to her.

Merkel, Israel’s best friend in Europe, whose love of Israel and the Jews is gut-deep and who has defined Israel’s security as part of Germany’s raison d’etre, simply no longer believes a word Netanyahu says. The only European leader who publicly and repeatedly says that Israel is a Jewish state and the Palestinians must recognize this sees Netanyahu’s settlement policy as sabotaging the survival of that state.

But over the past year, the clashes between Merkel and Netanyahu have ended. There are no more shouting matches or angry statements to the media. This isn’t because their relationship has improved; Merkel is simply sick of fighting with him. She has concluded that nothing she says will actually influence his policy, so she’s given up.

Her 24-hour visit is meant mainly to cross the annual joint cabinet meeting off her list and thereby preserve the embers of the bilateral relationship. The schedule is devoid of any real content. Everyone will smile for the cameras and pretend it’s business as usual, but behind closed doors, they’ll simply reel off prepared talking points. At the end, Merkel will board her return flight without a backward glance.

When there’s nothing better to say, diplomats resort to the cliché that the visit’s importance lies in the fact that it occurred. This time, the cliché is true. Fifty years after Germany and Israel established bilateral relations, the special relationship is in danger. The current dialogue between the political echelons in Berlin and Jerusalem is neither open nor intimate. This is no longer a disagreement between friends, but milk that has soured.

Angela Merkel, left, shakes hands with Benjamin Netanyahu upon her arrival to Israel. But is all well?Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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