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Occupation increasingly a touchstone for Israeli-German relations

After 50 years of diplomatic relations, the Israeli-German partnership is strained by mounting German dismay over Israel’s settlement policy and reinvigorated anti-Semitism in Germany.

By Angela Gruber

Prime Minister Netanyahu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet in Jerusalem in 2011. (Photo: Avi Ohayun/GPO)

Prime Minister Netanyahu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet in Jerusalem in 2011. (Photo: Avi Ohayun/GPO)

Israel and Germany are marking 50 years of diplomatic relations this week. While most people probably aren’t reeling with excitement in anticipation of the countless festivities (especially on the German side) to mark the occasion, the anniversary does serve as a good occasion to take stock of the relationship between these two countries.

Can Israeli-German relations ever be normal? Should they, after the Holocaust? Is Israel more entitled to German support than other nations? Or is this a poisoned chalice no side should lobby for? And where do the Palestinians stand in that equation?

German Chancellor Willy Brandt once described the relations between Israel and Germany as, “normal relations [that] are very special in nature.” A few decades later, I believe his words still ring true. And yet they mean something different today.

Fifty years after David Ben-Gurion and Konrad Adenauer forged an unlikely partnership, Israel and Germany are partners with strong ties in economy, science, culture, sports, and of course, politics. Not only are diplomatic ties strong between the two countries, there is also deep and broad cooperation between the two civil societies.

Probably most controversially, Germany is a major supplier and funder of Israeli arms, subsidizing up to 50 percent of the costs (for example with the Dolphin-class submarines) of armaments, including the subsidized sale of new warships announced this week. Israel’s security was and still is an essential part of the German Staatsraison, and no German politician has ever grown tired of saying as much.

But in recent years, Germany and Israel’s interpretations of what this cornerstone of foreign policy means and how it should be interpreted in day-to-day politics have drifted apart. Germany is taking baby steps toward being more outspoken about the Israeli occupation, and that is increasingly straining its relationship with Israel (see timeline).

Nevertheless, Khalil Shikaki from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah thinks Germany could support the Palestinians much more, even without hurting its relations with Israel.

“Palestinians want much stronger economic relations with Germany, which is also something Israel should support,” he told me.

Shikaki recently directed a public opinion survey asking Palestinians about their views on Germany. Most Palestinians like Germany as country, but not its foreign policy, the study found.

“Palestinians still believe Germany is biased towards Israel and shies away from sincere criticism in order not to hurt the special relations with Israel,“ he said. “There is no doubt in my opinion that the Palestinians suffer from the consequences of the Holocaust,“ Shikaki added — a view widely rejected in Germany.

While he recognizes Germany’s contribution in nation-building and rebuilding Gaza, Shikaki argues that Germany does not take any effective steps against Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank. “This indirect support for the continuation of the occupation is the problem, not the German submarines.“

Mohammed Dajani Daoudi is a Palestinian scientist, peace activist and founder of Wasatia who lobbies for interfaith reconciliation. Unlike Shikaki, he sees Germany’s foreign policy as more balanced than ever before. “I see a big possibility for Germany as an ‘honest broker’ in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since it has good relations with both.” The real question, he adds, is whether Israelis and Palestinians truly want to reconcile.

The new German audacity has not gone unnoticed on the Israeli side, either. “Under Chancellor Merkel and her government, Germany has become much more outspoken about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” explains Shimon Stein, former Israeli ambassador to Germany.

“The German expectations about Israel making progress in the conflict haven’t been met and they express that.” Provoking Israel’s dismay is a risk German officials are willing to take, according to Stein. “Israel needs Germany more than Germany needs Israel right now.“

Public opinion polls indeed show widespread German disillusionment over Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian neighbors, a notion shared by Stein. “To Germans, the Palestinians now hold the role of the victim, not the Israeli people who are seen as the aggressors.”

Ambassador Stein sees German Mideast policy trapped in a situation he describes as a zero-sum-game between Israeli and Palestinian interests: “You sympathize with one [side] and offend the other.“

But it’s not just the situation in the Middle East itself has become a mainstay of the Israeli-German agenda: Jewish life in Germany is another important issue that comes into focus at the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations. And in this regard as well, the status quo isn’t as cheery as the organizers of the countless anniversary ceremonies had hoped — even though stories of a huge Israeli influx to Berlin still dominate the headlines.

Just this year, Josef Schuster, president of the influential Central Council of Jews in Germany, made headlines when he advised German Jews not to wear yarmulkes in German Muslim quarters. His organization traditionally serves as a cautionary voice in Germany’s public sphere.

Since the recent attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, the problem of anti-Semitism in Western democracies like France, Denmark and also Germany indeed has become a hot topic again. And it’s not just media hype, Schuster insists. “Unfortunately, an aggressive, anti-Israel atmosphere prevails in Germany. Often, this plainly translates to anti-Semitism.”

Angela Gruber, 26, is a German journalist, blogger and former intern at +972 Magazine. She was a scholar for the “trialog of cultures” scholarship of the German Quandt foundation and reports from and about Israel. Follow her on Twitter: @netzkolumnistin.

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    1. Ken Kelso

      Palestinians get more aid per capita then any people on earth yet they are always angry. All foreign aid should be cut off till they grow up, stop firing missiles at civilians, and learn to be productive humans instead of moochers and terrorists.

      Hamas and Fatah are always ready to sacrifice women and children for their greed and hatred.

      The Palestinians have raised an entire generation to believe that the highest aspiration in life is to kill Jews. The Palestinians are engaged in an unremitting campaign of targeted murder of women and children. When the Palestinians massacre Israeli school children on buses, and babies in baby carriages, they celebrate. They have raised an entire generation to believe that the the highest cultural and religious value is the massacre of Jews. Through the Arabs hate, an entire generation has lost the capacity
      The Palestinians will blow up the same hospital that gave them excellent care. The will try to blow up the power plant providing electricity from Israel. Their hate knows no end. Until they love their children more than they hate the Jews as Golda Meir said.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ken Kelso

      How do the Palestinians raise so many people who have no regard for human life? What kind of gutter do these animals come from? What kind of Evil could think it is an act of heroic and religious martyrdom to slaughter children waiting for buses, to blow apart people in their sleep, to kill women doing their marketing, to target the weak and defenseless at malls.
      Why do the Palestinians clamor like vultures to take credit when they butcher Israeli school kids on a school bus?

      14 Palestinian terrorists who murdered over 160 Israeli civilians honored this month by Fatah

      Reply to Comment
    3. Bruce Gould

      In point of fact many West Bank political figures (such as Salam Fayyad) have very explicitly renounced violence as a means of political change; there is no organized violent resistance anymore, at least in the West Bank. Any organized attempt at suicide bombings are a generation old, and while they were horrific they were also an act of total desperation. There are a number of films that show the situation the Palestinians are living in, and I would recommend them: The Law In These Parts, Five Broken Cameras, The Gatekeepers.

      Reply to Comment
      • Pedro X

        Bruce, you are wrong when you state:

        “Any organized attempt at suicide bombings are a generation old”

        Palestinian Prime Minister Haniyeh in January of 2014 attended a graduation ceremony for 13,000 children who had received military training for carrying on Jihad against Israel. He gave a speech which included the following words about suicide bombers.

        “This is a generation which knows no fear. It is the generation of the missile, the tunnel and the suicide operations.”

        He further added that staff were there: “to oversee the training of the young women to follow in the footsteps of the female suicide operatives.”

        In the Gaza war the Palestinians deployed suicide bombers on the battlefield. Not only were fighters outfitted in suicide vests but also children and other civilians were. BTS testimony from one anonymous soldier told how a 80 year old man was sent to blow himself against their position.

        Israeli soldier Avihai Shorshan broke his silence and unlike anonymous story tellers tells how Hamas operated in the Gaza strip:

        “During one of our operations in the outskirts of Sajaia (city in Gaza), our location was discovered. Hamas didn’t wait long and sent towards us a 10 year old boy with an explosive belt on him.

        Against protocol and orders to kill the terrorist, a friend from the crew that was guarding the door at the time, decided not to open fire. He took cover and ordered the boy to strip and take off the explosive belt. We arrested the boy and after an interrogation in Israel he was released safe and sound. (By the way, during the interrogation it turned out that his brother, a senior Hamas member, paid him 10 shekels to go and blow up on us).”

        Also do not think that the suicide bombers are only operating in Gaza. On May 29, 2014 the Israeli forces arrested a Palestinian at a check point south of Nablus. A Palestinian in his mid twenties approached soldiers at Tapuah junction wearing a long coat on a hot day. He was stopped and found to be wearing a device connected to twelve pipe bombs.

        On July 10, 2014 Israeli forces thwarted another Palestinian suicide attack by intercepting two Palestinians at a checkpoint on Route 5 would were in possession of a bomb.

        The Israeli presence in the West Bank prevents Palestinians from being able to carry out suicide bombings like they did during the second intifada. This is why there is a separation barrier and checkpoints.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Translation: the illegal and extremely oppressive Israeli presence in the West Bank provokes extremists so the illegal and extremely oppressive Israeli presence in the West Bank is necessary to suppress the extremists.

          Reply to Comment
      • New Relic

        Bruce, you know that you are nothing more than a useful idiot?
        What a life of shame you live. Time to join your brother.

        Reply to Comment