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Germany

Germany and Israel Far From Normality

Forty years ago this month, Germany and Israel took up diplomatic relations for the first time since WWII. The relationship, though very friendly, is anything but normal, say experts. And that won't change any time soon.

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Germany's Köhler (r.) met with Israel's Sharon on Tuesday

Germany's first ambassador to Israel was, at best, a strange selection.

A former major in the Wehrmacht, Rolf Pauls lost an arm in combat against the Allies during WWII. Israelis, already suspicious of the plan to resume diplomatic relations with Germany in 1965, were outraged.

Pauls' car was attacked with rocks and bottles on his way to his swearing in ceremony, according to historical accounts. But Pauls soon proved he possessed the necessary sophistication that his new post required. By the time he left again in 1967, he had endeared himself to his Israeli hosts so much that former Israeli diplomat Avi Primor remarked that he was "received with stones and sent off with roses."

German President Horst Köhler is likely to get a more sober reception during his four-day visit to Israel this week to mark 40 years of German-Israeli relations. In addition to meetings with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as well as his Israeli counterpart, Köhler will give a speech before the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, on Wednesday. He is only the second German politician to do so after President Johannes Rau (photo, below) five years ago.

Johannes Rau in Aschdad

Then German President Johannes Rau in Israel in 2003

The address has been the subject of heated debate in Israel, with some parliamentarians objecting last week to Köhler being allowed to give the speech in German. Though tempers have cooled since then, the incident highlights just how difficult the relationship between the two countries continues to be.

Normality takes time

"That we are still discussing today whether it's a normal relationship, like our relationship to Denmark or Italy, is a sign that it's not," said Friedemann Büttner, a Middle Eastern studies professor at Berlin's Freie Universität.

Germany's role as the aggressor nation in WWII is something that it has had trouble overcoming with many former declared enemies. Büttner gave the country's relationship with France as an example. Though diplomatic relations with France have been in place for more than forty years, it was only last year that a German chancellor took part in the ceremony commemorating D-Day in Normandy.

"I can't imagine a similar situation with Israel," he said in an interview. "It takes time."

Balanced approach

That isn't to say that strides haven't been made on a political and economic level. After the US, Germany is Israel's most important trading partner. German companies like SAP and Siemens are well represented in the Middle Eastern country and a joint mining venture between Volkswagen and Dead Sea Works is considered the beginning of more German-Israeli ventures, according to the German Foreign Ministry.

Joschka Fischer in Washington

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer



Beginning in the late 1990s, Germany, and particularly Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, took a special interest in mediating the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Though the US remains Israel's main partner in the peace process, Fischer's balanced approach to the problem has won him supporters in "every political party," said Büttner.

Recent events in Germany show that hitches remain. The success of the right-wing, anti-Semitic National Democratic Party (NPD) in getting voted into the Saxony state parliament last autumn set off alarm bells in Israel.

Sensitivity training

"It's a fact that we cannot ignore," Paul Spiegel, head of the German Central Council of Jews said in a recent radio interview. "It is a fact that we're confronted with, and it prompts a certain fallout in Israel."

Spiegel has campaigned for finding better ways to teach German schoolchildren about the Holocaust in an effort to increase their sensibilities. But his efforts have fallen on deaf ears, he said.

"I haven't gotten any reaction so far."

Cultural understanding is perhaps the most important tool politicians will have in dispelling Israeli misconceptions about Germany, said Martin Beck, Middle Eastern expert at the German Institute for Middle East Studies, in Hamburg.

"The cultural relationship between Germany and Israel is perhaps more developed than any other European country has with Israel," said Beck in an interview. "That is very important. An exchange on all levels, not just a political level, is crucial to dismantling Israeli suspicion and to showing them that the Germany of today has nothing to do with the Germany of National Socialism."

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