New German president visiting Israel | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 28.05.2012
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New German president visiting Israel

President Joachim Gauck is on a state visit to Israel, where he will touch Israeli hearts, says Foreign Minister Westerwelle. But even so, German-Israeli relations have never been easy.

German President Joachim Gauck hails from the former German Democratic Republic, which did not maintain official relations with Israel. As an "anti-fascist" state, the GDR government did not consider itself in succession of the law of the Third Reich, and therefore did not shoulder the burdens of responsibility of German history. For West Germany, on the other hand, unconditional solidarity with Israel became a cornerstone of its policy.

German President Joachim Gauck

German President Joachim Gauck

Solidarity and raison d'être of the state

Konrad Adenauer, West Germany's first chancellor, laid the groundwork in building a good relationship with the Jewish state, which was founded in 1948. In 1952, Adenauer and founder and Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion signed a reparations agreement - which entered into force the following year - to compensate for some of the atrocities of the Holocaust. Diplomatic relations were established in 1965. Today, Germany is considered one of Israel's closest allies.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has even deemed Israel's security a raison d'être of the German state, yet German citizens themselves long ago stopped heeding this principle.

David Ben-Gurionand Konrad Adenauer meeting in New York in 1960

David Ben-Gurion (l) and Konrad Adenauer meeting in New York in 1960

Israel has increasing lost respect among Germans, with a survey by German news magazine Stern showing 59 percent of those polled considering Israel to be an aggressive country. That's up 10 percent compared to a decade ago. Two-thirds of Germans view Israel as a nation that pursues its own interests while disregarding those of others.

Only 36 percent said they view Israel congenially - 10 percent less than three years ago. Thirteen percent do not even believe Israel has a right to exist.

Friendship and distance

"Friendship does not exist between Germany and Israel," Munich-based historian Michael Wolffsohn noted matter-of-factly. A sense of distance has been growing between the two nations since 1981, clearly evidenced in surveys, he said at a recent podium discussion in Berlin.

Israel enjoyed an exceptionally good reputation among Germans following the Six-Day War in 1967, he pointed out, but it began to suffer after the Yom Kippur War of 1973. A deep fissure in the relationship developed in 1981 concerning German plans to deliver weapons to Saudi Arabia, leading to a hefty dispute between then government leaders Menachem Begin and Helmut Schmidt. Israel is now one of the most unpopular states in the world in German eyes, Wolffsohn said.

Young Germans in particular have developed a critical distance toward Israel, marked by a decreasing sense of historical responsibility. They do, however, remain quite interested in the country.

Interest and criticism

Tamar Amar-Dahl

Amar-Dahl says German-Israeli relations won't be smooth for a long time

German-Israeli historian Tamar Amar-Dahl can attest to that from her own experience. As a lecturer of Israeli history at Berlin's Free University, she has no cause for complaint about dwindling numbers of visitors to her classes.

"German students are very, very interested in Israel," she told DW in an interview. "Germans are fascinated by Israel, they view it as something mysterious, as a 'hard nut to crack.'"

For the students, learning more about Israel means learning more about the persecution of Jews and their suffering, as well as about the shared Jewish-German past. They want to see Israel as a national state project whose success could help alleviate German guilt, she said.

But, 70 years after the Shoah, the Zionist project has failed. "The Jewish state offers security neither to its Jewish nor its non-Jewish residents," historian Amar-Dahl said. Germans are slowly waking up to this as well. "People are beginning to realize that Israel's hopeless policies have helped create this situation," she noted.

Germans therefore see themselves in a dilemma: they have to find a way of uniting their intense feelings of guilt with a necessary degree of criticism of Israel. This requires a sovereign and complex approach toward the state, she noted.

Amar-Dahl said she could not speak of a "normal relationship between Germany and Israel." This would not be possible given the extent of Germany's radical and monstrous crimes against Jews. "The Shoah will have to stand between the two groups of people for a long time to come," she said.

Submarines and a poem

Gemany builds submarine for Israel

Gemany builds submarine for Israel

Nonetheless, official German-Israeli relations - nearly 70 years after the end of the war - are good and stable. Meetings between the two governments have taken place regularly since 2008 in Berlin and Jerusalem. Within the EU, Germany is seen as a reliabe advocate of Israel.

In Israel, Germany is highly regarded as a weapons supplier. Just a few weeks ago, the Israeli Navy received the fourth Dolphin-class submarine from Germany. Israel has ordered a total of six German-made, nuclear-capable submarines, each costing up to a half-billion dollars, making them Israel's most expensive weapons. Germany covers part of the costs, with the first two submarines given to Israel for free and the construction of the rest subsidized with several hundred thousand euros (100,000 euros = $125,000).

Germany's supply of submarines to Israel also prompted poet and novelist Günther Grass to express his concerns over the growing tensions in the Middle East and his criticism of Israel's politics. The poem "What Must Be Said" by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate published in April in several German and international newspapers criticized Israel's policies and its threats of attack on Iran, triggering a wave of outrage and prompting the Israeli government to deem Grass persona non grata - an issue that may also be on German President Gauck's agenda during his visit to Israel.

Author: Bettina Marx / als
Editor: Gregg Benzow

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