Analysis / German Leaders Come and Go, but Policy Toward Israel Will Stay the Same

The exit polls published in Berlin yesterday showed the results of the German election as too close to call. But from a narrow Jewish-Israeli perspective, the question of which parties ultimately form the new German government has little significance. What is the difference between a "special" relationship and relations that are "a precious treasure"? What is the difference between a "determined fight" against anti-Semitism, and a commitment to combat "racist phenomena with the full force of the law?" Those, more or less, are the differences between outgoing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his likely replacement, Angela Merkel.

At the height of his election campaign in 1998, Schroeder visited Israel. This was his first visit abroad as the Social Democrats' candidate for chancellor. During his trip, he gave an interview to Haaretz in which he pledged that his party's younger generation - by which he primarily meant himself - would "live up to the expectations" that accompany German-Israeli relations.

Merkel, the Christian Democratic candidate, did not visit Israel prior to the current election. She wanted to, but Schroeder called early elections and foiled her plans. Instead, she decided to convey her messages in an interview to Haaretz.

A comparison of the two interviews, as noted above, reveals little difference between the two candidates. The "special relationship" has become the norm, the declarations have become cliches. The lofty words don't make for good headlines. But that is cause for rejoicing, not grumbling. Indeed, Israeli officials constantly reiterate that Germany has for years been Israel's best friend after the United States.

Nevertheless, there are those who say that behind the similar declarations lurk different policies, which will become evident after the elections if Merkel wins. "Schroeder's sympathy for Israel was not great, to use an understatement," noted one foreign diplomat in Berlin. "During his government, whenever Germany's interests conflicted with those of Israel, a policy was adopted of `hiding behind the back of Brussels.'" This diplomat therefore believes that a Merkel victory could result in a "refreshing change."

The signals being sent to Israel by Merkel's associates are also positive. Her biographer, Wolfgang Stock, for instance, predicted that she "will be very involved in the Middle East and will demonstrate her sympathetic stance toward Israel."

A senior Israeli government official balanced this picture by saying that Israel is already starting to miss "the friend," Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Fischer, the official added, was "a rare foreign minister, someone with authority in Europe who knew the Middle East conflict inside and out - a winning combination from Israel's standpoint."

Rudolf Dressler, Germany's outgoing ambassador to Israel, synthesized these differing views as follows: "With Fischer, relations with Israel came from the heart. With his successor, perhaps, they will come from the head."

But ultimately, what was is what will be: German leaders can come and go, as can the generations, but policy toward Israel and the Jews will remain the same. It is all taken for granted. Banal. Boring. And that is precisely what is so interesting.