The German-Israeli special relationship

Germany and Israel have held regular government consultations since 2008, an arrangement where the two sides meet at regular intervals to discuss specific topics. This will be the fifth such meeting between Germany and Israel. The last one was held in Berlin in December 2012 and during that meeting, Merkel and Netanyahu “agreed to disagree” over Israeli construction in areas the Palestinian Authority (PA) claims for a future state. Netanyahu and Merkel still disagree but the German chancellor is anxious to defuse the tensions. To demonstrate how important relations are, she called on all of her ministers to travel to Israel this week. Merkel has never taken such a step ahead of government consultations with Israel in the past.

Germany is Israel’s closest European ally and second most reliable ally in the world. For Chancellor Merkel the security of Israel is even part of the raison d'être of Germany. In her famous speech in the Knesset in March 2008 Merkel stated: “Only if Germany accepts its enduring responsibility for the moral disaster in its history will we be able to build a humane future (…). This historical responsibility is part of my country's raison d'être.”  

Germany’s understanding of Israel’s security needs became stronger under Merkel. A good example of this is Germany’s policy towards Iran, which from an Israeli perspective, has improved greatly in recent years. Until 2005, Germany was a leading opponent of sanctions against Iran, preferring a policy of engagement and “critical dialogue” featuring high level political exchanges and economic inducements. In 2005, German policy towards Iran began to change following their membership of the P5+1, the group negotiating with Iran regarding its nuclear program. Since then Germany has increasingly supported the gradual imposition of sanctions by the UN Security Council. Most importantly, since 2010, Germany has also become a forceful advocate of European Union sanctions against Iran, including these unprecedented strong measures.  

Germany understands and is willing to support Israel’s right to security which can also be seen in the German willingness to supply Dolphin submarines to Israel. Nevertheless living in one of the most secure regions in the world does make Germans, in general, less sensitive towards security questions and less aware of Israel's unique situation and security challenges. Other topics dominate and brush Israel’s unanswered security question aside.

The main tensions between the German government and the Israeli government circle around the “settlements”. For most Germans the settlement issue is central to the peace process and hinders a more pro-Israeli argumentation. This can be observed by looking at the Horizon 2020 scientific cooperation agreement that Israel signed with the European Union that prohibited EU funding for academic research in the settlements. Germany was the first county to ask for similar clauses for the bilateral agreements with Israel. Merkel has not indicated any willingness to bend on what is proving to be the biggest sticking point. The chancellor and Foreign Minister Steinmeier both believe that Israel's settlement policy represents a decisive barrier to the peace process. It's also something they don't shy away from saying in public, much to the Israelis' chagrin. “It is precisely because we are committed to the future of Israel as a Jewish state that we will remain so firm on this point,” a source in Merkel's Chancellery stated.

For many the settlement issue is seen as the biggest sticking point – not only those in Germany. For Israelis there is another sticking point to the peace process which should be regarded as important as the settlements. Keeping Israel’s history and its experience with its neighbors in mind, one should not forget that Israel feels threatened in its existence and in its recognition as the democratic nation state of the Jewish people. Israel wants to be reassured that the era of the three “No's” – NO peace with Israel, NO recognition of Israel, NO negotiations with Israel really has come to an end. A Jewish State in Eretz Israel was the decision of the United Nations General Assembly in 1947 after all. Since then the Israeli government asks for the recognition of just this – not always successful.

In order to engage in a more positive dialogue, the discussion in Germany has to evolve from the never-ending “settlements controversy”. The controversy is part of the difficulties within the peace process but not the most pressing issue and it will be solved by defining the borders and land swaps – which is already common ground in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Where do we go from here? The German-Israeli government consultation should lead to realistic approaches. Germany and the Jewish state of Israel now work together better than ever before and have a healthy “special relationship” with many joint projects. The government consultations provide a unique opportunity to deepen the understanding of each other's needs. The upcoming anniversary “50 Years of German-Israeli Relations” will be the next landmark for German-Israeli relations. Foreign Minister Steinmeier is right when he stated that we have “a unique window of opportunity for the whole region. We Europeans have to put all our energy to flank and support the American efforts”. Germany, as Israel’s closest European ally, can play an especially important part in this.

The author is co-chair of German ELNET, the pro-Israel European Leadership Network.  He was a member of the Bundestag for 25 years.