After rising support for his far-right Alternative for Germany party made it the third-largest one in parliament, Alexander Gauland, one of its leaders, framed his comments on Israel so casually it was as if he didn't anticipate that they would cause a storm.
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“I am sorry if I say it in this clarity: I just always have the feeling that this is something that sounds good and that people therefore can get behind very easily,” the newly elected parliamentarian said about Israel’s right to existence as one of the guiding principles of German Staatsräson, or national interest, and foreign policy. “But if it comes to really stepping up to the plate, this is a very difficult matter indeed.” Gauland later added that “stepping up to the plate” for him meant sending German soldiers into the Israeli-Palestinian armed conflict: “Staatsräson means that we would need to be really to sacrifice our lives for the State of Israel, and I cannot seriously feel that.”
Journalists in the press conference were flabbergasted; Jewish groups were alarmed. It took only a few minutes for Germany's biggest daily, Bild-Zeitung, to run the headline “Gauland: Dangerous Comments on Israel.” Gauland’s comments on sending German soldiers to Israel “if the Jews are being driven into the sea,” as he put it, was almost every German news outlet's top headline until the evening, sometimes even superseding discussions about a new coalition government. Although Gauland's comments themselves are absurd, this effect was exactly what he was aiming for with his calculated provocation.
Firstly, Gauland has been involved in German politics since 1970 and knows very well that it is legally and politically very difficult to dispatch German forces anywhere in the world. This requires a strong mandate from the Bundestag's lower house; these mandates always take months of negotiating and deliberation. An emergency deployment to save “Israel from being wiped off the map,” as Gauland envisioned it in his comments, is pretty much legally impossible.
Secondly, any deployment of the German troops is always highly controversial for the public. The vast majority of Germans, regardless of their party affiliation, are against German soldiers' involvement in any armed conflict, let alone in Israel, a politically and historically sensitive country. No German government could survive such a deployment.
And thirdly, it's doubtful that the highly trained and experienced Israel Defense Forces would find it at all helpful to work with German soldiers, who are neither equipped for nor familiar with the circumstances of the conflict.
So why bring it up at all? Gauland’s remarks, just like his anti-Semitic or racist comments on the Wehrmacht and other issues, follow a 13-page strategy paper for the party that was leaked ahead of the election. In the text, the party leadership declares that members “should not shy away from diligently planned provocations” to make the established parties look weak. “The more nervous and unfair the established parties react to our provocations the better. The more they are trying to stigmatize AfD because of our provoking words and activities, the more positive it is for AfD’s profile.”
Gauland followed accordingly on Monday, as he always does: Say something politically incorrect and provocative, then soften the language a little a few hours later, but never go back to the matter itself, thus making it a topic that the established parties and the media have to engage with.
The softening happened in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper later in the day, where Gauland declared that he had just imagined a hypothetical situation, and for that hypothetical situation, he was voicing his doubts that German society really knew what supporting Israel meant: “Naturally it means that German soldiers have to fight and die alongside Israeli soldiers.”
Hypothetical or not, Gauland’s comments worry Jewish groups around the world about where Germany is headed after this election. The American Jewish Committee expressed concerns that “already, one day after the elections, AfD doubts that Israel’s safety is German Staatsräson. We therefore hope that a future coalition government will voice a clear commitment that Israel’s safety remains a cornerstone of German democracy.”
No senior politician of an established party commented on Gauland’s Israel statement. But they may have to prepare for many more similar provocations in the Bundestag as of next month, because it looks like Gauland and other AfD leaders will continue to follow their strategy paper after the election in the same spirit as during their campaign.