How Long Will German-Israeli Ties Last Without Angela Merkel?

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Angela Merkel at a ceremony in Halle, Germany on Saturday.
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

On October 10, outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to visit Israel. Happily for her, Naftali Bennett is the prime minister. Merkel would not have been keen to come here if Benjamin Netanyahu were still ensconced in Balfour Street. It was no secret that Merkel, like former U.S. President Barack Obama, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and other world leaders couldn’t stand Netanyahu, mainly because of his lack of trustworthiness.

Merkel’s dislike of the former premier is well-illustrated by the following anecdote: Ten years ago this month, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was freed from Hamas captivity in a deal in which Netanyahu released more than 1,000 terrorists. The German government mediated and helped bring the deal to fruition via the efforts of Gerhard Conrad, a top officer in the BND, the German intelligence agency. Upon Shalit’s return, Netanyahu thanked the chancellor and the German government effusively for their assistance. Merkel merely issued a terse statement of congratulations to the Shalit family and left it at that. (By the way, it would have been a nice gesture if Merkel had asked Conrad to come along on her trip to Israel.)

LISTEN: They were devout Christians in South Africa. Then they became Jews and moved to Israel

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The cool wind blowing toward Netanyahu from Merkel intensified over the years, and it certainly didn’t help matters that he embarrassed her by embroiling her government in the controversial submarine deal.

But despite its displeasure with Israel’s occupation and settlement policies, Germany under Merkel remained a loyal friend of Israel and a guardian of its vital interests. In that way, Merkel continued the German foreign policy tradition that’s been in place since the days of Konrad Adenauer, underlined by one principle: concern for Israel’s security. The origins of this approach lie in guilty feelings over the Holocaust, an attitude shared by all German governments since the 1950s, whether headed by Social Democrats or Christian Democrats. This tilt toward Israel has united a majority of the political establishment.

The special treatment accorded the Jewish state was primarily manifested in Germany’s decision to pay reparations that, over the years, have amounted to tens of billions of dollars (in today’s terms) to the Israeli government and its institutions, as well as to Holocaust survivors (under certain conditions) and their families. In the late 1950s and ‘60s, Germany also provided generous financial support to build the nuclear reactor in Dimona, as the ultimate expression of “Never Again” and of Israel’s determination to defend itself from Arab states’ threats of annihilation.

In 1991, after Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles at Israel during the first Gulf War, Germany agreed to contribute several billion marks, and later euros, to subsidize Israel’s acquisition of submarines which, according to foreign reports, are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Germany’s friendly relationship with Israel has also been evident in diplomatic and economic cooperation, and extensive security-related ties. One aspect of this is the close relationship between the German BND and the Mossad. In terms of intelligence assistance to Israel, the BND is second only to the American CIA. It is hard to conceive of any mishap or brazen operation by the Mossad on German soil that the BND would not be ready to forgive.

But Merkel’s retirement after 16 years could mark the start of a shift. The outgoing chancellor leaves behind a political vacuum: The two large parties that dominated her country’s politics since World War II have shrunk significantly. Now there is a multiplicity of parties, and the country’s agenda is changing. Germany, which will apparently now have a “traffic light coalition” (i.e., made up of the Social Democratic Party, the Free Democratic Party and the Greens), is prioritizing issues like climate change, social justice and reduction of economic disparities.

These issues are not and never have been of real interest to Israel’s governments. At most, the latter pay lip service to them and only act as if they care seriously about them. Particularly during the Netanyahu era in which nationalism, xenophobia, oppression of Palestinians and deepening religious trends all became heightened, Israel sang the same unwavering tune over and over again: security, security, security.

With America having elected Joe Biden, a liberal president, and Germany at a crossroads, it will become harder for Israel to find a receptive ear for its problems. In Germany, the United States and elsewhere in the West, the young generation is beginning to be fed up with Israel. The memory of the Holocaust is fading. The new young politicians aren’t buying Israel’s cries of alarm about the mortal threats posed by Iran or by terrorist organizations. Israel is struggling to convince people to take its side, in part because it refuses to change or to try to adapt itself to the new global agenda in the third decade of the 21st century.

For years, Israel complained about the undue attention it receives from the world, ostensibly out of proportion to its location and size. As it persists in just treading water, the day is approaching when Israel will complain that no one cares enough about it.

Germany will continue to support Israel after Merkel has left the stage, but with the Christian Democrats, who always automatically supported Israel, in the opposition, the bilateral ties will gradually weaken. Israel will be less important to the new government in Germany.

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