And the winner is: Angela Merkel! Nobody in Germany has any doubts that after the election of the new Bundestag on September 24, the old chancellor will become the new one. The polls clearly show the lead of Merkel's conservative party, while Martin Schulz, the social democratic candidate, lost momentum a long time ago and seems to have almost no chance at all.
It shouldn’t surprise anybody if Merkel remains in power, and the reasons are obvious: Germany’s economy is thriving, the country is strong and Merkel gives a certain guarantee of stability in the turbulent times of the Brexit, terrorism and growing dissonance within the European Union – not to mention the lack of serious leadership in Washington.
As in almost every country, internal politics dictate the main issues of the election campaign, as do questions about the future of the EU. Since almost no refugees are arriving to Germany anymore, this issue has vanished from the agenda and Merkel is careful not to talk about it. Her welcoming over a million of refugees mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq in 2015 caused an unprecedented low in her popularity. Many Germans believed that the end of her era had come.
But now, only two years later, there is no doubt that her new triumph has to do with her sobriety in times of turmoil around the world – or, as the American media described it, her importance as the “leader of the free world” since Donald Trump has taken over the White House. And of course it also has to do with all the mistakes her challenger Schulz has made in his campaign until now.
Merkel’s tactic of avoiding disputed topics makes it obvious that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t an issue in this election campaign. Most Germans hold a clear position on who is responsible for the stalemate in the peace process. As almost everywhere in Europe, in Germany, too, Israel's reputation has declined, mainly because Prime Minister Netanyahu is considered one of the most disliked international politicians.
How will this influence Merkel’s policy toward Israel in the future? There is no doubt that the chancellor is a reliable friend of the Jewish State, but not necessarily of Netanyahu and the present government in Jerusalem. Recent years have shown a deterioration in the relationship between Netanyahu and Merkel, who took side the side of her foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, over his spat with Netanyahu. When Gabriel visited Israel in April, the prime minister insisted that the foreign minister not meet with the left-wing nongovernment organizations B'Tselem and Breaking the Silence. Netanyahu issued an ultimatum: if Gabriel met with representatives of the groups, he would not meet with Gabriel. The foreign minister refused to cancel the meeting, so Bibi canceled his. Even though there was some questioning in Berlin of Gabriel’s handling of this crisis, the German government was nevertheless quite upset with Netanyahu.
Berlin does not only criticize Israel’s settlement enterprise. Time and again it is troubled by Netanyahu's lack of reliability. Officials in the government's inner circles have complained more than once that Netanyahu promised something and then just did the opposite – that personal agreements between the two leaders were not kept. The consequences of this are already visible. Germany maybe still the most powerful friend of Israel in the EU, but it is no longer remaining silent when Jerusalem takes decisions concerning the settlements and the Palestinian Authority.
A German diplomat explained the other problems related to taking Israel's side in the EU: “More and more European states are against Israel’s behavior and we cannot achieve, let’s say, a better-worded resolution against Jerusalem every time, as it is always about compromises. And we need compromises in many EU affairs affecting Germany, so the other states say: You want to help Israel again? Fine, but then you need to give us something for it. The truth is, Israel’s support inside the EU is vanishing. Germany, being almost alone as [its] defender, can’t do too much.”
Yet Germany remains a strong supporter of Israel’s right to exist and Chancellor Merkel will continue to help when it comes to Israel’s capability of defending itself. The mere fact that Germany is willing to subsidize the sale of two submarines to Israel proves it. If this purchase will not take place, it will only be because of the alleged corruption case inside Israel. A few weeks ago Berlin made clear that in this case, Germany would withdraw from the deal. That was because Merkel would not have been able to defend such a sale and doesn't want to get tainted by a possible corruption scandal during her election campaign. For now, the sale is on hold and it is still uncertain what will happen, but this is an Israeli problem rather than a German one.
In the long run, Merkel’s Germany will remain a friend to Israel. But Israel’s most right-wing coalition ever will face stronger opposition and public criticism from Berlin, which will only increase if Schulz becomes chancellor against all odds. The fear that Germany might get attacked by Israel because of the Holocaust is over. A younger German leadership knows its historical responsibilities toward Jews and Israel, but it no longer feels guilty for what happened in the Shoah.
Richard C. Schneider was bureau chief and chief correspondent of ARD German TV in Israel and the Palestinian Authority from 2005 to 2015. He is currently finishing a book on Israeli society, to be published in March 2018.
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