The extensive report in the highly-regarded German news weekly Der Spiegel on the German government’s growing skepticism over relations with Israel was an unpleasant reminder of the erosion of Israel’s standing with one of its most important allies. This erosion is coming at a time when the German government is headed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the best friends that Israel has ever had.
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Most reports of this kind do not appear by happenstance. It can be assumed that most of the information and quotes provided for the most recent story to two reporters who are considered senior journalists at the prestigious weekly were given with the permission and authority of senior officials in Merkel’s office and from the German Foreign Ministry. The statements for direct quotation and attribution from two of the most senior members of parliament from Merkel’s party and from the party of German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are much more powerful evidence of this.
Against this backdrop, the response from “senior diplomatic officials in Jerusalem” was particularly ridiculous, even Orwellian. As if day is night and night is day. As if Israelis were aliens who had just landed from another planet and had not been here over the past seven years.
Ties with Germany are outstanding, the response said. The relationship between Merkel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is close. What is there to say? Life is like a bowl of cherries, or why even cherries? Like German custard cake, cremeschnitte.
The new consideration in the German government regarding the unconditional alliance with Israel was dismissed in Jerusalem as an effort by her opponents to flay Merkel. The Israeli reaction deemed the claims that Netanyahu was exploiting Germany’s friendship to maintain the West Bank settlement enterprise as domestic German politics. At least these Israelis didn’t try to find a creative explanation to comments that Merkel made publicly and in front of the camera that she understands why Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants to turn to the United Nations Security Council to obtain a condemnation of construction activity in the settlements.
The Der Spiegel report is full of fascinating details, such as Steinmeier’s refusal to help Netanyahu head off a condemnation of the settlements by the European Union or the voices in the German Foreign Ministry calling for a reassessment of relations with Israel. As interesting as each snippet of information is, they are sort-of like the trees. What is important is the forest. The forest is the fierce crisis of confidence between Merkel and Netanyahu. A cold analysis by the chancellor with respect to everything related to a two-state solution of the conflict with the Palestinians is that there is nothing to talk about and no one to talk with in Jerusalem.
Almost every sentence in the article reminds one of Israel’s situation concerning another major ally. The importance of the diplomatic and defense aid from Germany for Israel is second only to that of the United States. If we examine the erosion in relations between Israel and Germany since 2009 through today, the process is very similar to what has occurred between Israel and the U.S. administration. President Barack Obama would agreed with each and every one of Merkel’s claims against Netanyahu.
But all this is nothing new. After all, Merkel did not need to read what Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz or Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis said against a Palestinian state over the past year in order to understand that Netanyahu is not really interested in advancing the peace process. Quite a number of articles have been published about her feelings toward Netanyahu in the past, a large number of them in this newspaper. So the question that must be asked is: Why now? What interest does the publication of the article serve at this moment?
Quite a number of senior Israeli diplomats have racked their brains over the past few days in an attempt to answer this question. None of them have a clear answer. One of the main opinions is that the article was intended to be part of the preparations for a broader diplomatic move. Such a move could be German support for the French peace initiative or the report to be released in a few weeks by the Quartet – the U.S., Russia, EU and UN – concerning the freeze in the peace process, or the encouragement of an American move on the Israel-Palestine issue that will become part of Obama’s legacy.
On the eve of the last day of the Passover holiday last week, Israel released its official response to the French initiative to hold an international peace conference. The response was released in preparation for the meeting of some 30 foreign ministers in Paris on May 30. Israel and the Palestinians will not participate at this conference. It will serve as preparation for the larger conference France wants to hold before the end of the year in order to restart the peace process.
The Israeli response included a series of diplomatic clichés. It was as close as possible to saying no without actually saying no. But in translation into normal language it was clear that Israel was rejecting the initiative. In comparison, the Palestinians have adopted the initiative with open arms.
It is hard to believe that someone in Paris of other major capitals was surprised by the response from Jerusalem. In recent years, Netanyahu has taken care to do everything to make it easier for the international community to cast him as a naysayer, and to turn Abbas – a rather serious rejectionist in his own right – into someone who cares. None of this has helped Israel’s foreign relations and international standing, but it worked extremely well in the Israeli elections – so why stop now?