Day After Election Success: Far-right AfD Leader Questions Germany's Special Relationship With Israel

Controversial remarks that contravene Merkel's official policy come a day after the xenophobic AfD party came in third in the national election

Alexander Gauland, top candidate of the Alternative for Germany party, at an interview after first exit polls in the German general election, Berlin, September 24, 2017.
Alexander Gauland, top candidate of the Alternative for Germany party, at an interview after first exit polls in the German general election, Berlin, September 24, 2017. WOLFGANG RATTAY/REUTERS

A day after the extreme right-wing party Alternative for Germany became the third-largest in the parliament, one of its leaders questioned whether the country's national interests include Israel's existence.

Israeli-German relations and Jewish life in Germany have returned to the headlines in Berlin in the wake of the election, in which Chancellor Angela Merkel won a fourth term. Several remarks by senior AfD members seemed aimed at calming German Jews' fears after the rise of the nationalist, racist and xenophobic party. However, there were also controversial comments about how the party views the ties between Israel and Germany.

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Alexander Gauland, one of AfD’s leaders, questioned Merkel’s declared policy of a special bilateral relationship. “If Israel’s existence is part of the German national interest," he said at a party press conference on Monday, using the German term Staatsräson, "then we would have to be prepared to send German soldiers to defend the Jewish state."

If this is the case, he said, then the issue is “problematic” and “difficult” as far as he’s concerned. “It’s clear that Israel’s existence is an important point for us. But to turn it into a national interest it sounds so simple but there is a continuous war in Israel. The implications of ‘national interest’ is that we would need to be really prepared to sacrifice our lives for the State of Israel,” he said.

Frauke Petry (R), co-chairwoman of the Alternative for Germany party, stands with top candidates Alexander Gauland (L) and Alice Weidel (C) before a press conference, Berlin, September 25, 2017.
Michael Sohn/AP

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He reiterated this stance in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, adding, “German society doesn’t really understand what the significance is. That is, that German soldiers would fight and die alongside Israeli soldiers.”

On Monday it emerged that AfD won 12.6 percent of the votes for the Bundestag, putting it behind the Social Democratic party's 20.5 percent but ahead of the Free Democrats, who only garnered 10.7 percent. Once the results were published, Jewish groups and individuals hastened to denounce the party and express concern about the rise in its power, among them the European Jewish Congress, the World Jewish Congress and German Jewish leaders.

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Members of the extremist party have made disturbing comments in the past, including calling the Holocaust memorial in Berlin “a monument of shame” and saying that Germany ought to honor the memories of soldiers who served under the Nazi regime.

Gauland tried to assuage these concerns, saying that Jews had nothing to fear from his party. “There is nothing in our party, in our program, that could disturb the Jewish people who live here in Germany,” he told reporters.

Merkel said on Monday that “AfD will have no influence” on the policies of her next government. To obtain the majority she needs by law to set up a government, Merkel, whose Christian Democratic Union received 33 percent of the vote, has two options. One is to unite with two parties – the Greens and the Free Democrats – to form what Germans refer to as the “Jamaica Coalition,” because the colors of the three parties mirror those of the Caribbean island’s flag.

Merkel's other option is to continue with the “large coalition” between her party and the Social Democrats. Given the significant decline in support for the latter in the election, its leaders declared Sunday night that they would refuse to continue to sit in Merkel’s shadow for another four years. Nevertheless, on Monday Merkel said that she intended to conduct coalition talks with the Social Democrats as well. The Social Democrats' chairman, Martin Schulz, reiterated that he planned to sit in the opposition.

There are also tensions within the AfD. On Monday the party’s leader, Frauke Petry, announced that she would not be part of the parliamentary faction but would instead sit in parliament as an independent over ideological differences with the party’s dominant wing, which represents what she sees as an overly extreme line.

Petry’s dramatic announcement exposed the depth of the internal rift and disagreements in the ranks of AfD. In response, another party leader, Alice Weidel, called on Petry to resign from the party.