Merkel's Israel Legacy: A True Friend – Despite the Fights With Netanyahu

Israeli politicians who worked closely with the outgoing German chancellor, including former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, say she always had Israel’s back, even when she was critical of some of its policies

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Merkel and Netanyahu
Merkel and Netanyahu, who was Israel's Prime Minister for 12 of her 16 years in powerCredit: Markus Schreiber / AP
Jotam Confino
Jotam Confino

As her 16-year reign as German chancellor comes to an end next month, how will Angela Merkel be remembered in Israel?

Leading Israeli figures who saw firsthand how Merkel’s policies – and alleged personal feuds – affected relations between Jerusalem and Berlin during that time say she will be a tough act to follow. Merkel was due in Israel this weekend for one of her final official trips as chancellor, but that was postponed at the last moment due to events in Afghanistan.

From Holocaust reparations in the early 1950s to arms sales and joint military exercises in the following decades, Israel and Germany’s relationship has strengthened exponentially in the postwar years, peaking during Merkel’s term.

In 2007, Germany and Israel began a tradition of biannual meetings between government officials. Then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Haaretz he “won’t take credit for” the initiative, but that his close personal relationship with Merkel “certainly helped bring it about.”

During his years as premier from 2006-2009, Olmert says that he learned the following about Merkel: “If you aren’t completely honest with her, you will lose her immediately.”

Israel's then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2008. The ex-premier has only good things to say about her.Credit: Tomer Neuberg/Jini

Olmert added that ”she didn’t have any doubts about our integrity. If anything, those doubts were about the Palestinians. She shared her doubts with me, about the promises made by the other side [Palestinians] that weren’t kept. I don’t recall a single direct confrontation between us. Whenever there were any misunderstandings or such, our advisers would clear it between them,” Olmert adds.

Like most world leaders, Merkel is a strong advocate of the two-state solution and a critic of settlement-building in the West Bank. Dr. Lidia Averbukh from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs says Germany’s support for the Palestinians is “quieter than its support for Israel, for historical reasons. However, if one looks at the flow of money and the presence on the ground, it is clear that Germany is very active in Palestine.”

Indeed, Germany’s ambassador to Israel, Dr. Susanne Wasum-Rainer, says the country is “the biggest international donor to the Palestinian Authority.”

In 2018, Germany earmarked $62 million for new development projects in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and following May’s 11-day flare-up between Israel and Hamas, pledged $48.86 million for civilians in Gaza. It also donated $10 million to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees last year.

At the same time, Merkel made it clear to Israel that she was deeply committed to the state. In 2008, she gave a historic speech in the Knesset, in which she stated that “Israel’s security is Germany’s core national interest,” receiving a standing ovation for his message.

“Merkel was received very well in Israel from the beginning, and she made an outstanding speech in the Knesset in which she touched on all the sensitive issues of our past,” Olmert says. “At the same time, she could criticize Israel without anyone questioning her because of her deep commitment to us.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attending a party conference a few years ago.Credit: TOBIAS SCHWARZ - AFP

Wasum-Rainer also recalls Merkel’s historic Knesset speech as a highlight for German-Israel relations in the 2000s. “Her emphasis that the historical responsibility for Israel’s security is part of Germany’s raison d’être was and is in line with the fundamental principles of German policy since 1949,” the ambassador says. “Merkel embodied this commitment over her entire 16 years in office, and made it a self-evident guiding line of her politics. I think this steadiness and reliability is the reason for the chancellor`s widespread popularity in Israel and elsewhere,” she adds.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai says that Merkel’s unwavering support for Israel made it possible for her to tell Israelis things they weren’t always comfortable hearing.

“For Israel, Merkel has been the friendliest and supportive German chancellor there has ever been,” he says. “I think her occasional criticism of Israel was based on a concern that it was losing its character as a Jewish democratic state – mainly because of its control over Palestinians in the West Bank. Whenever she did criticize Israel’s actions against the Palestinians, however, it always came with great sentiment toward Israel,” Shai says.

The connection between Olmert and Merkel went beyond foreign relations, the former prime minister says. “Whenever we had official state visits, we would meet the night before over a drink and just talk without protocol, about everything from personal matters to politics. I did that with a few other leaders, but with her it was always special,” he recounts.

Those private conversations over drinks ended in 2009 when Benjamin Netanyahu replaced Olmert as prime minister.

German Chancellor receiving a standing ovation in the Knesset after her historic speech in 2008.Credit: AP

The Netanyahu years

Despite the unbreakable bond between their two countries, it is well documented that the relationship between Merkel and Netanyahu was at times notoriously bad. Shouting and confrontations in meetings and phone calls were reported in the first couple of years after Netanyahu returned to power.

“Those years were difficult. The style of Israeli politics and the lack of discretion posed a challenge for Merkel – but also with regards to substance. In some cases, Merkel didn’t think the course Netanyahu pursued was in Israel’s long-term interest,” says former Israeli ambassador to Germany Shimon Stein.

Olmert, a longtime Netanyahu rival and critic, suggests the bad relationship between the two leaders boiled down to one thing: “I think the bottom line is that there wasn’t any personal trust between Merkel and Netanyahu. She never told me personally, but I knew from good sources that she absolutely didn’t trust him.”

Averbukh confirms that Merkel was not always happy with Netanyahu, mainly due to his government’s “strategy of using divisions within the European Union to its advantage and winning over the Visegrád Group” of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, whose policies often clashed with those of Merkel.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel with then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem during an official visit.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

That was not the only issue that drove a wedge between Berlin and Jerusalem. Averbukh also cites the suspended government consultations in 2017 on the issue of advancing settlement construction in the West Bank, and ”the problematic tenure of then-German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who called Israel an apartheid state.”

Merkel used the September 2017 German elections as an excuse to postpone the annual summit with Netanyahu that May, but Haaretz reported that Israel’s law to expropriate private Palestinian lands was one of the real reasons behind the move.

The German Foreign Ministry did issue a rare, harsh statement following the passing of that law in February 2017, saying: “Our trust in the Israeli government’s commitment to the two-state solution has been fundamentally shaken.”

In October 2018, Merkel visited Israel as Jerusalem was preparing to demolish the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank. Averbukh says the chancellor’s visit led to the demolition order being stopped, which was also widely reported at the time. Merkel, however, stressed that her visit was not conditioned on Israel freezing the demolition order, saying: “This is an Israeli decision and our visit has nothing to do with it.”

However, Wasum-Rainer rejects the general narrative of there being bad blood between Merkel and Netanyahu. Instead, she stresses that they had a “very close working relationship marked by mutual friendship and respect.”

Israel's then-President Reuven Rivlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a meeting in Paris six years ago.Credit: Michael Sohn / AP

The day after Merkel

Merkel never missed an opportunity to stress Germany’s “special responsibility” toward Israel and the Jewish people. During her term, Germany outlawed symbols of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the European Union, including Hamas; passed legislation condemning “methods of the BDS movement that are antisemitic”; and supported numerous initiatives to combat antisemitism, most recently $41 million earmarked for research and education on the phenomenon, which is once more on the rise.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Shai and former ambassador Stein both say they feel confident that Merkel’s government has done everything it can to combat antisemitism. But as previously reported by Haaretz, some Jewish community leaders aren’t satisfied with Merkel’s efforts.

Germany is set to elect a new Bundestag, and with it a new chancellor, on September 26. But Olmert says that “whoever ends up taking over from her, they won’t be Angela Merkel. She wasn’t only the German chancellor, she was the most important political leader in Europe – not only because of Germany, but because of her personality, astuteness, integrity and admiration. I doubt that the coming chancellor will be as dominant and influential in the near-future as she was,” he says.

Shai, meanwhile, doesn’t see any major changes happening when Merkel leaves office. However, he does have one fear. “We see a new generation of leaders all over the world – and I’m concerned about that. They haven’t witnessed the things Israel has been through since its establishment, so how can they understand the environment in which we live? But when it comes to Germany, I do believe the strong relationship will continue.”

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