Merkel’s Germany: Will It Remain Israel’s Most Important European Friend?

How Germany's changing population threatens a historic relationship.

It is perhaps ironic that the nation responsible for the murder of six million European Jews is now considered among Israel’s closest and most important European friend. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the State of Israel. This week, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel hosted the sixth yearly (established in 2008) cabinet consultation meeting between the Israeli and German governments, which involves the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Netanyahu could not attend due to the security situation), his government ministers, and deputy ministers.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is beset by various crises, both domestic and international, including the endless flood of refugees from the Middle East streaming into Germany, the Euro crisis with Greece, war in Ukraine, and the fight against the Islamic State.  In recent days she had to leave the EU leaders’ summit in Brussels to fly to New York for both the UN General Assembly and world leaders’ summit, and then back to Berlin for a meeting with the Israeli government.

The meeting between the two governments was initiated by Merkel in 2008, as a vehicle to improve relations between the two countries. Yet, in recent years there were signs of trouble between Germany and Israel. While Israelis have, by and large, accepted Germany as a friend and ally, albeit, the Holocaust and Germany’s responsibility for the murder of Europe’s Jews has not been forgotten.  For many Germans however, Israel has now become a target of derision, comparing its treatment of Palestinians to Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews. Perhaps it can be explained as a way for Germans to assuage their guilt, or as latent anti-Semitism expressed as “anti-Israelism.” 

For Israel, the July 14, 2015 nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran, to which Germany was a partner, is a source of concern.  Iran has repeatedly threatened to annihilate the Jewish state, as PM Netanyahu eloquently pointed out at the UN General Assembly, to the silence of the international community. Merkel’s response to the agreement with Iran, given in an interview with Ynet Magazine (October 3, 2015) was: 

Iran’s stance towards Israel is unacceptable. We will say this again and again, loudly and clearly. The decisive question for us was whether signing the agreement would help regional security more than a situation without an agreement. At this point there are different assessments. Iran’s nuclear capabilities have considerably grown since 2005.  We reached the conclusion that the development could be stopped for now – for a relatively long amount of time.  For this reason, the agreement looked like a better option than rejecting it – and instead allowing Iran to continue developing a nuclear capability.

Merkel added,

I am mindful of Israel’s sensitivity about this topic and its lack of faith in Iran. After all, it is Israel that is directly threatened – but really all of us, the free world, are threatened by Iran arming itself with nuclear weapons.  And anyway, regarding the agreement that was signed, I have a different assessment from that of the Israeli prime minister.  I am interested in continuing to talk to one another about the advantages and disadvantages of the agreement.  Even if I, like other partners, reached the conclusion that the pros outweigh the cons – I still cannot ignore the criticism leveled at the agreement. We do not have absolute certainty that Iran will take the path of transparency.  In the event that Iran does not adhere to its commitment, the agreement allows us to reinstate the sanctions.

While Merkel talks about reinstating sanctions if Iran breaks the agreement, German firms have been the first to arrive in Iran even before the P5+1 agreement with Iran was concluded. Deutsche Welle headlined its report on July 14, 2015, “German companies cheer Iran deal,” and went on to say that, “Historically, Germany had strong trade and investment links with Iran. Now that sanctions are set to end, German companies are looking forward to doing business again in a familiar and welcoming market.” Merkel, like Obama, is delusional about “snap back” sanctions. The Chinese and Russians will not re-impose sanctions, and Germany will cast a blind eye on German business deals with Iran. 

Gerald Steinberg, political studies professor at Bar-Illan University, observed that

Merkel has the right moral positions, but her government’s policies are often out of sync. The Chancellor has been outspoken in condemning Iran’s anti-Semitism and genocidal threats, yet Germany is leading the charge to do business with Tehran. And, while Merkel calls BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) unacceptable, German political foundations and church aid NGO’s are active in promoting this form of warfare against Israel.

Merkel’s government’s is inconsistent in opposing the BDS campaigns against Israel. Merkel condemns the practice, yet, her government seems to endorse the labeling of Israeli products from Judea and Samaria exported to the EU markets.  PM Netanyahu, in rejecting the labeling policies of the EU stated, “We have historical memory of what happened when Europe labeled Jewish products” (a reference to the Holocaust). Another point of disagreement between the governments of Israel and Germany is the former demand that Germany and the EU outlaw Hezbollah because it is a terrorist organization. The Merkel government did agree to include Hezbollah’s military-wing on the EU terror list. 

To her credit, Merkel condemned anti-Israelism as veiled anti-Semitism.  She also seems to repeat the notion that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Merkel has also strengthened the defense relationship between Germany and Israel. Germany has supplied Israel with three Dolphin-class submarines and three more are underway. 

Asked by Ynet-news about her commitment to Israel’s security, Merkel replied:” Israel’s security was and is a very important matter for every Germen Chancellor – and so it will be in the future, too.  My statement (at the Knesset in 2008) must be understood in a very comprehensive way. It is frequently reduced to the military aspect, but it refers to an entirely fundamental commitment to Israel’s security. We are certainly not neutral. I am working on instilling this recognition in the next generation of young people.  I am similarly working to make the future generation’s young people to be aware of it.”

The growth of the Muslim population in Germany, and in particular the recent flood of Syrian and Iraqi refugees into Germany will pose a threat to Germany society as a secular, democratic state. It might also impact on the special relations between Germany and the Jewish State.  Merkel’s view is that “We will work against any form of religious fundamentalism with determination.” The European experience with Muslims, hitherto, has been a failure.  Multiculturalism in Europe has failed miserably, yet Europe continues to encourage Muslim immigrants who are largely inassimilable. Germany is the primary destination of Middle Eastern migrants who are bound to change the country within a few decades.  

In unified Germany, a new generation has arisen, which is no longer bound by Holocaust Remembrance. Israel is vilified by the radical anti-Semitic left and right, and both are allied with the resurgent Muslim community.  Half of the German population holds negative views of Israel.  Nevertheless, it was Angela Merkel who best summed up the relationship between the two countries by pointing out that Germany’s ties with Israel in the past several decades are nothing short of miraculous given the terrible baggage of the Nazi German genocide of Jews during the Holocaust.