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Rise of German far-right party causes alarm in Israel

Miriam Dagan Tel Aviv
September 27, 2017

Israelis have expressed consternation over the entry of the far-right populist AfD party into Germany's Bundestag. Prime Minister Netanyahu has warned of rising anti-Semitism, reports Miriam Dagan in Tel Aviv.

The AfD's Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel hold up their arms in a victory gesture
Image: Reuters/W. Rattay

"Germany votes – the 'Nazis in ties' on their way to parliament" read the headline on one of Israel's most important news sites, Ynet. One of the two leading Israeli TV stations announced: "An earthquake: Who is the Alternative for Germany? Extreme and dangerous." The other main news broadcaster said: "This is not just a party that's against immigration and Muslims, it's also a party that wants to change the perspective on the Nazi past. It's dramatic." Despite the pronounced polarization of left and right in Israeli media, the tone hardly differed on the AfD. Right-wing daily Israel Hayom led their front page with "Drama in Germany – for the first time since 1945, the extreme right-wing enters parliament."

Across the political spectrum media outlets reacted with shock, which indicates how seriously the rise of the AfD is being taken here, in a country that's used to having small parties with extreme positions in parliament. Again and again, news anchors quoted AfD candidate Alexander Gauland's praise for German soldiers during the Second World War, underlined that the AfD was now the third-largest group in the Bundestag and discussed the historical relativism expressed by party members and their denial of responsibility for Germany's Nazi past.

Read more: 'Forgotten' Duisburg voters turn to Germany's far-right AfD

Beyond headlines though, the right-wing media has tended to interpret the AfD's success in the German election as a protest vote and to downplay any danger. The newspaper Israel Hayom, which backs Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ran an interview with Gauland under a quote from the AfD politician: "The voters of Alternative for Germany and Jews in Germany have similar concerns," apparently catering to an audience that harbors sympathy for anti-immigration policies. Conservative media outlets commented on anti-Semitic currents in the European left, too.

"Congratulations to Angela Merkel, a true friend of Israel, on her re-election as chancellor of Germany," Netanyahu wrote on Twitter, inaccurately, seeing as Merkel can only be re-elected as chancellor by the Bundestag after forming a governing coalition. It wasn't until Tuesday, in a telephone conversation with her, that Netanyahu mentioned Israel's concern about the rise of anti-Semitic elements in German politics. Calling on the German government to assume "historic responsibility" and reject efforts to deny or marginalize the Holocaust, Netanyahu highlighted worries shared by both the right and the left. He refrained from alluding directly to the AfD victory.

Angela Merkel and Benjamin Netanyahu
Merkel has left no doubts that she is a strong supporter of IsraelImage: Getty Images/AFP/O. Andersen

Many have criticized the Israeli government's evasiveness about anti-Semitism as shameful. In an opinion piece in the left-leaning paper Haaretz on why Israel won't condemn the shocking success of the AfD, former ambassador to Germany Shimon Stein and historian Moyshe Zimmerman called Israel's response a "deafening silence."

Read more: Netanyahu's son under fire for Facebook post that echoes Nazi anti-Semitism

'Warning signal to Israel'

Possibly more significantly, Colette Avital, chairperson of the Center Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, said "Israeli politicians should not hide behind a polite formula. They should condemn right-wing parties much more strongly." Indeed, it seems the only government member who explicitly expressed alarm about the AfD victory was Construction Minister Yoav Galant, of the Centrist Kulanu party, who wrote on Twitter: "Observing with concern the expected changes with the entry of the extreme right into parliament – right-wing nationalism in Germany is a blinking red light."

Preliminary official results German election  2017

Though Colette Avital said she believes in the German government's unfaltering commitment to Israel. Yet, she told the DW: "We are very worried about the rise of a right-wing, Nazi party in Germany. It's shocking to us that a party that is openly Nazi is returning to German politics." She stressed that an anti-Muslim party cannot be liberal at the same time: "It means you are not tolerant. And this is something that should not make us happy."

Read more: Far-right AfD's surge worries Muslim refugees in Europe

That standpoint was echoed by Nachman Shai, a member of parliament and chair of the Israel-Germany Parliamentary Friendship Group, who called the election results "a huge warning signal to Israel and to the Jewish people." Shai told DW he is not worried about the Merkel era, because she is considered a great friend of Israel's – "but the question is, what will happen in the future? A high percentage of the German population harbors anti-Semitic and racist viewpoints. They will now have a public arena and may become more powerful."

A number of other influential left-wing and centrist opposition politicians in Israel have twittered or voiced concern about the AfD, including Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, whose father is a Holocaust survivor, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, one of the country's most prominent politicians. Livni wrote on Twitter: "I congratulate Angela Merkel, a true friend of Israel. I'm convinced that just as she knew how to courageously stand up for her values, she will find a way to deal with the worrisome rise of the anti-Semitic, extreme right."

In Israel, the consensus is that this was not just another German election.