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Germany backs Israel — despite and because of history

May 14, 2021

Burning Israeli flags on German streets, openly shouted antisemitism. Concern is turning into fear, among Jews in Germany as well as Israelis. How good are German-Israeli relations?

70 years of the State of Israel commemoration march with Israeli and German flags in Berlin
Germany and Israel regularly commemorate their challenging historyImage: Imago/C. Mang

"This violence cannot be justified by anything. Israel has the right to defend itself against these attacks within the framework of self-defense," German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said on Friday, denouncing the actions of Hamas in light of the massive rocket fire on Israel. Seibert speaks for the German chancellor. It is a journalistic custom to say that Angela Merkel speaks through the words of her spokesman.

Germany is 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) away from Israel. But, these days, distance is relative. The escalation in the conflict has shaken many in Germany. Now the conflict is spilling over onto German streets. Israeli flags are burning; insecurity and fear are growing among Israelis in Germany and German Jews.

Special relationship

The relationship between Germany and Israel is special. Israel will always be marked by the Shoah, Nazi Germany's mass murder of 6 million Jews. And yet the relationship has developed impressively since 1965, the year full diplomatic relations were established between the two countries.

David Ben Gurion (1886-1973), in particular, stood for early reconciliation. Early on, the legendary first prime minister of Israel argued for the view of the "other Germany." Ben Gurion and the first German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967), met only twice in his lifetime: in 1960 and 1966. And yet both statesmen seemed almost like distant friends.

The first official talks between the Federal Republic of Germany and Israel began as early as 1952, initially about a reparations agreement. Then there were secret contacts for German arms deliveries to Israel. When this became known in the Middle East in 1964, the excitement was great. And yet it was the final impetus for the establishment of full diplomatic relations in 1965, a step that not a few people in the young country found difficult. The arrival of the first German ambassador was greeted by riots.

Konrad Adenauer and David Ben-Gurion 1960 in New York
Ben Gurion (left) and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer seemed almost like distant friendsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Warnings about settlement construction 

The solidarity was strengthened by joint commemoration days and visits by German government representatives. Helmut Kohl traveled to Israel only twice in his 16 years as chancellor, but Angela Merkel has been a different story: To date, she has visited Israel seven times.

On her most recent visit, in October 2018 — after political talks and a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial — she was awarded an honorary degree by Haifa University in Jerusalem, though the chancellor's planned side trip to the northern Israeli port city was canceled because of time constraints.  

And yet Merkel delivered a very fundamental and personal speech that sounds very relevant again today. "The trust that I experience here is like a miracle," the chancellor said. "The fact that today we are bound by bonds of friendship is an inestimable gift, and it is an improbable gift against the background of our history." 

But, in recent years, her trips have become less frequent. That could be partly due to the course taken by Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing nationalist government, though the chancellor and her governments have always emphasized the importance of Israel's right to exist. 

In view of Israel's settlement policy in the Palestinian territories, however, Germany has repeatedly advocated a two-state solution. German and EU adherence to this concept has had a difficult time politically, especially during the period when US President Donald Trump shaped the global view of the Holy Land. Every new Israeli settlement construction is accompanied by admonitions from Germany not to further strain the tense situation in the country. 

Angela Merkel speaking in the Israeli parliament
In 2008, Merkel became the first foreign head of government ever to speak in the KnessetImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Scheiner

Germany's special responsibility 

In Israel, Merkel is held in high esteem despite differences of opinion on settlements. In 2008, she was the first foreign head of government ever to speak in the Knesset in German, the language of the perpetrators. 

"At this point, in particular, I would like to say explicitly: Every federal government and every chancellor before me were committed to Germany's special historical responsibility for Israel's security," Merkel said in her speech. "This historic responsibility of Germany is part of my country's reason of state. That means Israel's security is never negotiable for me as German chancellor." 

Merkel's words have been quoted again and again to this day, but they have also been criticized in Germany. After all, German soldiers in the Middle East, even if only as UN blue helmets in the Golan Heights, are not something anyone in this country wants to imagine. And politically, no one wants to spell out to the last detail what this responsibility toward Israel might entail. 

Germany is not among those countries that have openly initiated mediation attempts in the Middle East. This may be because of the global political significance of the conflict. But, on several occasions, German diplomats or intelligence service representatives have championed Israeli concerns in countries neighboring Israel and, for example, negotiated the fate of missing Israeli soldiers.

Relations with Israel have always been highly sensitive terrain for German politicians. They were considered particularly good under Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. In 2001, he was in Tel Aviv for political talks when a Palestinian attack outside a disco on the city's beach left 21 dead, mostly young people. Hours later, Fischer tried to mediate between the Israeli side and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. 

By contrast, former Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel has experienced diplomatic tensions. In 2016, Netanyahu canceled a meeting at short notice when Gabriel had already landed in Israel because the economy minister also wanted to meet with representatives of organizations critical of the government.  

A few years earlier, Gabriel, then the SPD party chairman, had visited Hebron and subsequently called Israel an "apartheid regime." Israeli settlement construction in the Palestinian territories has always caused disagreements. In 2017, bilateral government consultations were even canceled because of it, and were finally held in Jerusalem in October 2018, the 70th year of the founding of the state of Israel. 

Two-state solution as goal 

Despite the political tensions, before the coronavirus pandemic, Israel recorded record numbers of tourists from Germany. Mutual trips by high school classes have also developed into a success story. 

And now, in the new crisis? More and more politicians, including German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, are emphasizing Israel's right to defend itself. All the mainstream political camps in Germany have expressed outrage at the desecration of the Israeli flag in Germany.

But one thing always stands out: Not many people in Germany show open solidarity with Israel in times of crisis. When Iraqi missiles reached Jerusalem and Israel in early 1991 — one of the country's most difficult moments — bringing death and destruction, barely two dozen people stood in front of the Israeli Embassy in Bonn on a cold January evening as a sign of solidarity.  

Merkel's last speech in Israel to date, on October 4, 2018, when she received the Haifa honorary degree in Jerusalem, concluded with a promise and an assurance. She "promises to come to Haifa one day, too," she said. She would carry the message that comes with such an honor, she said, "to Germany as well."

"The ambassador of the State of Israel in Germany will watch closely how we behave," reads the last sentence of this speech.  

This article has been translated from German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C