German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her entire cabinet are due in Israel next week for a high-profile visit that will include the largest bilateral government consultations in Israel’s history. However, the trip, which officially kicks off the preparations for next year’s celebration of 50 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations, is being overshadowed by reports of the worst crisis in diplomatic ties since Merkel took office nearly 10 years ago.
The chancellor will arrive in Israel on Monday evening and leave about 24 hours later. Her entire cabinet — consisting of 15 federal ministers – is confirmed to join her for the so-called G2G (government to government) consultations that will take place in Jerusalem. Merkel and her cabinet will thus participate in the largest G2G talks Israel has ever hosted, which is appropriate given the “special relationship” between Berlin and Jerusalem, officials from both countries said.
“This shows Chancellor Merkel’s commitment to strong and robust Germany-Israel relations. We appreciate her friendship,” an Israeli government official said Wednesday. Regarding reports of increasing tensions between Merkel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the official said: “We have differences regarding the settlement issues, that is known. But that doesn’t cast a shadow on what is ultimately a special and unique relationship.”
During Merkel’s visit, Israel and Germany will officially launch preparations for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of official diplomatic ties in 1965. Netanyahu and the German chancellor are expected to unveil the official logo for the jubilee. Last week, the cabinet decided to allot NIS 4 million from the state budget for events and activities to mark the occasion.
However, it is undeniable that diplomatic ties between Germany and Israel have seen better days, despite the speeches and statements that will undoubtedly affirm Germany’s eternal commitment to Israel’s security and right to exist as a Jewish state. Diplomatic relations have actually reached a “nadir,” according a report in Der Spiegel, Germany’s most important weekly news magazine.
“Recent years have seen several instances of tension between Germany and Israel. [Merkel and Netanyahu] have even shouted at each other on the telephone while discussing Israeli policies toward Palestinians,” Der Spiegel’s Ralf Neukirch wrote this week. “But relations between the two countries have never been as difficult during Merkel’s three terms in office as they are now.”
Although Germany is part of the P5+1 group currently negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, points of contention mostly have to do with Jerusalem’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
The relationship between Merkel and Netanyahu has been tense for years, partly because the Israeli prime minister allegedly leaked contents of a private conversation to the media but mainly because she doesn’t trust him. In the Federal Chancellery in Berlin there is a general distrust regarding Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution.
Some of Merkel’s top foreign policy advisers believe Jerusalem’s participation in the current round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is all bluff. They are totally disillusioned about the prospects for peace, wondering why the Palestinians even agreed to negotiate while knowing full well that the prime minister will never agree to their terms for a Palestinian state.
Israeli officials, on the other hand, are disappointed with what they conceive as Berlin’s betrayal vis-a-vis the pledged support for Israel in international forums. They still argue that Germany reneged on its promise when it abstained during the November 2012 United Nations General Assembly vote that admitted “Palestine” as a nonmember observer state, a charge Berlin vehemently rejects.
Germany’s opposition to Israeli settlements has been longstanding, yet Israel felt betrayed when Berlin supported the European Union’s guidelines that bar any EU funding from Israel entities that operate in the settlements. Germany, too, has moved to insert similar clauses to bilateral agreements.
“According to Israeli government sources, ‘special relationship’ means that, when in doubt, Germany must side with Israel. That, though, is far from reality at the moment,” the Spiegel report read.
During a recent meeting between Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Jerusalem, Liberman enumerated his many complaints. He said Berlin “often hides behind European Union positions rather than presenting its own views,” according to the report. “But then he got straight to the point. He doesn’t feel the Germans are behaving as one would expect from a close partner.”
But Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Tuesday that press reports sometimes exaggerate negative headlines while neglecting the many positive aspects of bilateral relations. There are plenty of examples that highlight the special friendship between the two countries, such as a multitude of joint commercial and development projects and political cooperation.
“The German-Israeli relationship has its share of misunderstandings, misgivings, complexities and special sensitivities,” he said. “There are ups and downs, shadows and lights, but the bottom line is that it’s a good relationship.”
Palmor did express the hope that the Germans, more than other nations, would strive to pay special heed to Israel’s needs. “Of Germany, we expect more,” he said.
Merkel and her ministers will arrive at Ben-Gurion airport on Monday evening and immediately head to Jerusalem. At 8 p.m., the chancellor will attend a first private meeting with Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office, and later dine with him. At the same time, the German ministers will attend a dinner with their Israeli counterparts elsewhere in Jerusalem.
On Tuesday morning, the German guests and their Israeli hosts will attend a series of bilateral meetings. At 10:30 a.m., the joint cabinet session is scheduled to take place at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, where the German delegation is staying. Following the historic G2G meeting, the ministers will sign several bilateral agreements and hold a joint press conference.
The G2G consultation will focus on the topic of “innovation,” the deputy spokeswoman of the German government said Wednesday.
After lunch, the German ministers will return home, while the chancellor is set to proceed to meetings with opposition leader Isaac Herzog and President Shimon Peres. At the President’s Residence, Peres will present Merkel with the Presidential Medal of Distinction, Israel’s highest civilian honor, and deliver statements to the press. About 24 hours after she arrives, the German chancellor will head back to Berlin.
Merkel last visited Israel in December 2012. In 2008, she addressed the Knesset, where she famously declared that Israel’s security is part of her country’s “raison d’etat” (Staatsraison in German). Therefore, she vowed, “Israel’s security will never be open to negotiation.” While she never explicitly pledged to defend Israel militarily if it ever came to a confrontation in the region, some commentators took that statement as a guarantee of exactly that, and criticized her for making promises she didn’t intend to keep.
Last September, before being reelected for a third term, Merkel was asked what her commitment meant concretely in a time of crisis. She responded: “That means that we’ll never be neutral and that Israel can be sure of our support when it comes to ensuring its security. That’s why I also said that Germany’s support for Israel’s security is part of our national ethos, our raison d’etre.”