Germany will hold a general election this September and the 16-year reign of Chancellor Angela Merkel will come to an end. In preparation for that event, her Christian Democratic Union party chose a new chairman last month: Armin Laschet, currently the prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous federal state in the German Republic.
Laschet is now one of two leading candidates – together with Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder – to become the party’s official nominee for chancellor in September. Laschet's inheritance of Merkel’s position as leader of the party has given him an advantage.
One question of interest to Israelis who follow German politics is whether or not he will also “inherit” Merkel’s policies toward Israel.
Like the current chancellor, Laschet also stands for a liberal-moderate course. Extremes are alien to him. He was a member of the Bundestag and the European Parliament. A lawyer and former journalist, he is an avowed Catholic and a strong supporter of the European Union – two things that were influenced by his childhood growing up in the town of Aachen, close to Germany’s border with France.
“He’s a centrist European who thinks identically to Angela Merkel when it comes to Israel,” explains Ulf Poschardt, editor-in-chief of the WeltN24 media group.
Laschet is also known to have a strong commitment to fighting antisemitism. “He’s passionate about that. It is a matter of the heart. He maintained close contacts to Jewish organizations in Germany and abroad from very early on,” says Mark Speich, state secretary for federal, European and international affairs of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia and a close associate of Laschet.
Laschet is committed to Chancellor Merkel’s famous sentence, which she uttered when addressing the Knesset in Jerusalem in 2008, that Israel’s security is part of Germany’s raison d’être. According to Speich, “it is Laschet’s fundamental foreign policy conviction that Germany must commit itself to the security of Israel. It is a political obligation.”
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But what would that mean in the future if a Chancellor Laschet and an Israeli prime minister, be it Benjamin Netanyahu or someone else, cannot come to an agreement on matters such as Iran?
Unlike Netanyahu and most other Israeli political leaders, Laschet believes that a nuclear deal with Iran would be beneficial for the world, and also for Israel. Would that mean a confrontation between the two countries, who are usually close allies? Poschardt has few concerns: “Laschet is someone who thinks about whether to get involved in every conflict. Laschet is underestimated because he’s jovial. When it comes to enforcing something, he acts differently than Merkel, who’s an analytical doctor of physics. He avoids disputes where there’s nothing to be gained, but instead thinks diplomatically about what common ideas and goals can be found.”
Speich, who was in Israel with Laschet in 2018 on a work visit, recounts a constructive conversation between Laschet and Netanyahu on that occasion: “Netanyahu made it clear that this [Iran] question affects both Israel and Europe. One could not separate the security interests of Israel and Europe. Laschet understood that. Both men got on well with each other, even if there were differences of opinion.”
If he becomes chancellor, Laschet will certainly work for an agreement with Iran. But since even the Biden administration in Washington wants to readjust the existing deal with Tehran, Germany could also push for a different agreement than what was signed in 2015. Many Israeli proposals could flow into a new agreement, at least as far Germany is concerned.
Laschet first visited Israel as a young man. Last March, he opened an office in Tel Aviv for North Rhine-Westphalia, in order to advance close cooperation in the fields of business, science, culture and education. Israel is the only country in the world where the state operates such an office.
Speich told Haaretz that Laschet’s approach to Israel was also reflected during his years in the European Parliament, when he was known as a supporter of the country.
In 2019, Laschet also supported the German Bundestag’s resolution condemning the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel as antisemitic.
It’s still unclear if Laschet will indeed become the party’s official candidate for chancellor. Söder, the other leading candidate, shares the same views regarding Israel, but has fewer personal contacts and experiences with the Jewish state.
One thing seems clear, however: Even after she bows out of politics this fall, Merkel’s vision of a strong German commitment to Israel will continue to be the dominant view in the country’s ruling party.
Richard C. Schneider is Editor-at-Large at BR/ARD German Television. From 2005 to 2015, he was the Bureau Chief and Chief Correspondent of ARD in Tel Aviv.