Just weeks into his term, Germany’s charismatic president heads to Israel
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Just weeks into his term, Germany’s charismatic president heads to Israel

Joachim Gauck arrives Monday -- at a time of growing German criticism, and with the Gunter Grass affair still fresh

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Germany's president, Joachim Gauck (photo credit: CC BY Sebastian Hillig, Flickr)
Germany's president, Joachim Gauck (photo credit: CC BY Sebastian Hillig, Flickr)

Germany’s new head of state is set to arrive in Israel on Monday, just two and a half months after taking office.

Due to the special nature of German-Israeli relations, it is customary for new German presidents to visit the Jewish state early on, but Joachim Gauck’s plan to arrive so soon surprised even German politicians, one of whom had previously planned an Israel trip at this time and was forced to cancel so the two visits would not coincide.

“The early visit in Israel is dear to my heart. This state visit emphasizes the eternally special relationship between Germany and Israel,” Gauck said, according to a statement released by the German Embassy Monday morning.

Like his predecessors, Gauck, whose role is largely ceremonial, will address Germany’s “historic responsibility” toward Israel and reiterate his government’s unshakable commitment to the Jewish state’s security.

“Keeping the memory of the Shoah alive is a special task for us Germans,” he said, according to the statement. “The German responsibility toward Israel and the fight against anti-Semitism are cornerstones of our policies.”

Yet many observers of bilateral relations are wondering whether the president, known as a charismatic and captivating speaker, will go beyond the usual talking points and manage to bring some fresh air to often stale ceremonies. One potential topic Gauck might address is the controversy surrounding preeminent German writer Gunter Grass, who recently accused Israel of endangering world peace by threatening Iran.

Gauck, 72, will be making a four-day visit during which he will meet with President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Labor opposition head Shelly Yachimovich. He is also scheduled to visit the Palestinian territories.

The Rostock-born Gauck — a former Evangelical pastor who became famous as a political dissident in Communist East Germany — will visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, and meet with Israeli writer David Grossman and German émigrés. On Tuesday, Gauck will meet with members of the Israeli Olympic team of 1972. He will also present the German-born Israeli entrepreneur and industrialist, former MK Stef Wertheimer, with the German state’s official medal of merit.

After the Bundestag in March elected Gauck with nearly 80% support — his only challenger was Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld — he received advance praise from German-Jewish leaders and Israeli figures alike.

“He will certainly breath fresh air into politics and should, as a moral authority, bring our diverse society closer together,” said Dieter Graumann, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

Avi Primor, who served as Israel’s ambassador in Germany from 1993 and 1999 and has met Gauck many times, told The Times of Israel at the time that Gauck is going to be an “interesting” president. “He will arouse discussions that will have an influence on public life, which doesn’t mean that everyone will like it. I guess he will irritate many people.”

Veteran Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, however, attacked Gauck for having signed the 2008 Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism, which he says likens the crimes of the Nazis to those of the Communists.

“Instead of building on the foundation of Germany’s to-a-large-extent successful, even if far-from-perfect, confrontation with its Nazi past, he is likely to strengthen those voices which seek to de-emphasize the importance of the Holocaust in German history and consciousness,” Zuroff wrote in The Times of Israel.

Meanwhile, a new poll claims that Germans have grown more critical of Israel in the last three years. According to the survey published by German news magazine Stern, 59% of respondents find the Jewish state to be “aggressive.” A similar Stern survey conducted in 2009 had 49% agreeing with that statement. The 2012 poll further claimed that only 36% percent of Germans had a “very positive view of Israel,” while three years ago that number was at 45%. Six out of 10 Germans don’t believe that Germany has a “special obligation” to Israel after the Holocaust, according to the survey.

In the wake of last month’s scandal surrounding Grass’s poem, several polls were published with at times contradictory results.

Günter Grass (photo credit: CC BY-SA Florian K, Wikipedia)
Günter Grass (photo credit: CC BY-SA Florian K, Wikipedia)

Nearly 60% of participants in an online survey of the Financial Times’s German edition agreed with the Nobel laureate’s “theses about Israel,” while just 15 percent rejected them as either “dangerous,” “anti-Semitic” or “lunatic.” A survey conducted by Die Welt newspaper, on the other hand, found that “a clear majority of Germans are on Israel’s side” in the debate over the Iranian nuclear program, with only 18% saying the Jewish state was a greater world threat to world peace than the Islamic Republic.

Grass — who had served in the Waffen-SS toward the end of World War II – published a poem entitled “What needs to be said,” in which he bashes the “nuclear power Israel” for “endangering world peace.” The poem criticized the German government for selling Israel “another submarine whose specialty is to direct warheads that can destroy everything at a place where the existence of a single nuclear bomb has never been proven.” Grass also expressed regret for having been silent about Germany’s support for Israel for so long because of his guilty conscience due to his past and because he doesn’t want to be branded an anti-Semite.

The poem immediately drew harsh condemnation from German and Israeli politicians and pundits. The Israeli Interior Ministry decided to ban Grass from entering Israel, a move that was widely criticized as exaggerated.

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