40 Years of German-Israeli Diplomacy | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 12.05.2005
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40 Years of German-Israeli Diplomacy

Germany and Israel celebrate 40 years of diplomatic relations on Thursday. While they have been characterized as peaceful and relaxed, "normal" relations are still far away.


A relaxed though not quite "normal" relationship

Former German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1973 once described the West German-Israeli relationship as one with a "special character" with "no neutrality in the heart or in the conscience."

Then, official diplomatic relations between the two countries had only been established for eight years.

These days, Germany is Israel's most important political ally and trade partner in Europe and only second to the US in the world. And beyond politics, the two nations have established close personal networks and a cultural relationship that has infused the "special relationship" with life.

But it was a long road to get there.

Too soon after Auschwitz

Treffen Konrad Adenauer - Ben-Gurion, 12.05.2005 diplomatische Beziehungen zwischen Deutschland und Israel

Konrad Adenauer (right) and David Ben Gurion in New York in 1960

The two countries signed a reparations treaty in 1952 and subsequently developed various contacts, including a secret military relationship in which Germany delivered weapons to Israel. But their friendship essentially began in 1960, when Israel-founder David Ben Gurion and then German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer met in New York (photo).

Adenauer wanted to expand contacts to include an exchange of ambassadors but Israel rejected the idea. Only 15 years had passed since the liberation of Auschwitz, and many thought it was too soon to establish formal relations with Germany. But Israel did set up a "trade mission" in Cologne, which was mainly tasked with using reparations money to buy German goods needed by the young state.

A stand-off

In the 1960s, however, after word got out that Israel was buying weapons from West Germany, Bonn started to worry about the effects on its relationship to the Arab world. Indeed, Egyptian President Nasser invited the East German president to Cairo in 1965. Bonn reacted by offering Israel diplomatic relations -- despite the fact that Nasser threatened such a move would cause Egypt to recognize East Germany.

Though Nasser was bluffing, most Arab states broke off relations with Bonn when, on May 12, 1965, Israel and West Germany exchanged ambassadors for the first time. Soon after, a West German embassy opened in Tel Aviv and an Israeli one opened in Bonn.

Asher Ben-Natan

Asher Ben Natan

A former member of the Israeli defense ministry who had been involved in weapons deals with West Germany, Asher Ben Natan(photo), was sent to the Rhein as the country's first ambassador. Shortly after his arrival in Cologne, Ben Natan stressed the importance of relations between the two countries.

"The young are not responsible for the deeds of their fathers," he said. "The young should know what happened. The young in both countries should try to build a better future together."

Great but not normal

The Arab states eventually sent their ambassadors back to Bonn. In Israel, too, the relationship to Germany was becoming increasingly accepted.

Yohanan Meroz, then director of the Israeli foreign ministry and later ambassador to Germany described the relationship as "great but not normal."

In later years he explained what he meant: "I believe that the relationship has largely been normalized without being normal. But I think we are on the way to normal."

Over time, Germany developed into a reliable friend to Israel, in addition to becoming a top trading partner. And even though in the past, Germany hasn't played a strong role in the peace process, the country is becoming more active on this front, recognizing that its past gives it special obligations to help the Jews.

"One can't bury or forget the past," former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl once said. "Because a people that doesn't know its past, can't understand the present and can't construct the future."

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