BERLIN — This time next year, Israel and Germany will be gearing up to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties — a spectacularly sensitive relationship between the nation whose leadership set about annihilating the Jews and the nation-state whose revival, tragically, came too late to save six million of them.
The conventional wisdom is that the Israel-Germany “special relationship” remains both firm and delicate, marked by Germany’s extraordinary commitment to Israel’s well-being, as a consequence of that eternally unpayable historical debt owed by the Germans to the Jews.
The reality, however, is that while Germany has proved willing to some extent to bolster Israel’s defense militarily and diplomatically, much of its political and diplomatic leadership is as witheringly and ignorantly critical of Israel as the rest of the willfully blind European consensus. The only real difference is that German politicians and diplomats don’t generally make public their ill-informed critiques and their facile conclusions. In deference to that special relationship, they don’t put themselves openly at odds with the Jewish state.
German politicians and diplomats will tell you that they are worried about the bilateral relationship. The policymaking elite is dependably empathetic to Israel, they’ll say. But there’s a deepening and disquieting disconnect with the German public, which increasingly views Israel solely and without nuance as a brutal oppressor, building relentlessly on Palestinian land, insistently maintaining its rule over the poor Palestinians, whose only crime is to seek independence.
The fact is, however, that much of the policymaking elite feels pretty much the same, and unforgivably has not taken the trouble to look any deeper.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to commit himself to ending settlement expansion in areas that Israel does not envisage retaining under any conceivable permanent accord is spectacularly wrongheaded for Israel and spectacularly damaging for Israel’s international standing. But the German leadership, of all people, owes it to itself and to Israel to examine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the modicum of greater sophistication and seriousness necessary to recognize that Netanyahu’s settlement policies are not the only obstacle, and not even the central one, to Israeli-Palestinian peace. And a modicum of clear-sighted investigation is really all that’s required.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas did not jump at the offer made by Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert in 2008 that would have seen the removal of most settlements and would have met just about all of the Palestinians’ ostensible demands of Israel. He did not so much as negotiate with Netanyahu for the first nine months of the 10-month settlement freeze the prime minister reluctantly approved in November 2009. He demanded the release of vicious, in many cases mass-murdering terror convicts as the first stage of a negotiating process in recent months — not as the final consummating stage of a successful partnership to statehood — and welcomed home these killers as heroes, while channeling international funds to pay salaries to their fellow terrorists still in Israel’s jails. Critically, Abbas has done next to nothing to confront what is actually the core obstacle preventing meaningful Israeli-Palestinian progress and compromise — the narrative almost universally believed by his public that the Jews do not exist as a people, but only as a religion, and thus have no sovereign legitimacy.
These and the other grim realities so complicating peace efforts are obvious to anyone with the will to open their eyes. Recognizing them is central to the goal of improving the lot of Israelis and Palestinians. German policymakers, more than any others on the world stage, because of their particular moral obligation to ensuring the secure future of the Jewish state, have the highest imperative of all to educate themselves and consequently to advance effective policies.
And yet, when you scratch the surface and get past the smiles and the formalities, it becomes rapidly clear that the German elites’ thinking on Israel and the Palestinians is stuck entirely on the mantra that Israel must “end the occupation,” with no serious internalization of the complexities on the ground. Those same policymakers are ruefully starting to acknowledge that their lusty embrace of the Arab Spring as harboring the imminent flourishing of democracy throughout the Middle East may have been somewhat premature and exaggerated. But that nascent reassessment has not extended to any remote reflection that perhaps, just perhaps, Israel might not be merely stubborn, obdurate and paranoid in its reluctance to place all its faith in Abbas and the Palestinians. It has not occurred to many key players in Berlin that Israel might actually have cause to fear that extremists would take over territory it relinquishes, that other dangerous forces in the region might rise to more effectively threaten an Israel reduced to the pre-1967 lines (from which it was existentially threatened in its first 20 years of statehood), and that most of the West Bank Palestinians themselves might not be genuinely interested in co-existence.
To be sure, the toxic mix of naivete and condescension at the heart of German policymaking is not limited to inadequate expertise and wishful thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict alone.
Many Germans in high places seem to maintain a blinkered faith in and fealty to the UN despite the fact that this organization’s noble goals have long since been subverted, and despite its proven, abiding incapacity to protect innocent lives in conflict zones worldwide, with the 150,000 victims of Bashar Assad’s slaughter only the latest stain.
These Germans are similarly misguided, too, as regards the threat posed by Iran. They regard attaining a deal with Tehran on its nuclear program, any deal, as a vital goal, believing that the international community must strengthen the “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif against the regime “hardliners” — determinedly ignoring the fact that Rouhani was handpicked by the supreme hardliner himself, Ali Khamenei, and ignoring Rouhani’s self-acknowledged history of misleading the West for years about the progress of the nuclear program. They think Israel is being unrealistic in demanding that Iran be stripped of any nuclear weapons-building capability, including any enrichment capacity, since they have concluded that Tehran will never surrender to such terms. Israel, in their view, is acting in bad faith, and doesn’t really want to see a deal. (The smarter approach for all those who want to see Iran’s weapons drive thwarted, and that ought emphatically to include Germany and the rest of a Europe that is gradually coming within Iranian missile range, would be to use every ounce of political and economic leverage to ensure that Iran is forced to agree to precisely the terms demanded by Israel. Seventeen countries around the world smoothly receive fuel for their peaceful nuclear energy programs from legitimate nuclear powers; it does not require dazzling analytical skills to recognize, therefore, that the Iranians insist upon their own enrichment facilities because their goals extend beyond the peaceful use of nuclear technology.)
A mighty European power with considerable economic and political leverage, Germany is uniquely placed to help with the transformation of grassroots Palestinian society
But it is on the conflict with the Palestinians that Germany’s assumption that it knows better is both particularly galling and truly ripe for constructive change. Berlin’s diplomats do pay lip service to the notion that they should manage a little humility when it comes to telling Israel what to do, but then swiftly forget that obligation in their hubris and sense of superiority. They seem to think that we Israelis are incapable of discerning where our true interests lie, forgetting that we rushed to make peace with Egypt and Jordan because the overtures were genuine and credible, and that we tear ourselves apart in seeking the correct path with the Palestinians because the dilemmas are so acute.
But rather than lecturing, or politely restraining themselves from lecturing, Germany could actually help create a climate to clear a path to true peacemaking. A mighty European power with considerable economic and political leverage, Germany is uniquely placed to help with the transformation of grassroots Palestinian society. It could do far more than merely allow itself to be represented via the EU in the unwieldy Middle East Quartet. It has the clout to lead the defunding and gradual marginalizing of those hierarchies — UN organizations, educational frameworks, media outlets, and more — that promote a demonization of Israel and hostility to its people. Similarly, it has the clout to steer international assistance and support toward the organizations and activists that are working to open minds, to foster reform, to promote honest debate and moderation.
No matter how incapable US Secretary of State John Kerry is proving of internalizing it, there is an asymmetry at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will continue to prevent substantive progress until it is resolved. Out of a desire both to stop ruling over another people and to guarantee the long-term Jewish majority and democratic viability of their country, most Israelis truly want to separate from the Palestinians and partner them to statehood, and they have proven willing to throw out leaders who they feel are missing opportunities to advance those goals. (Netanyahu in 1999… and again in the near future, if he doesn’t rein in the settlement enterprise.) The Palestinians have no parallel urgent interest in an accord with the Jewish state. Quite the reverse. They want to believe that they can achieve statehood without an accommodation with Israel. And far from throwing out leaders who miss opportunities for peace, they only tolerate leaders who reject such opportunities (most recently hailing the scared, weak and now increasingly obdurate Abbas when he returned from the White House having rejected President Barack Obama’s entreaties for just a little flexibility on the core issues).
Germany can help change that. Germany, with its empathy for the Palestinians and its particular obligations to the Jews, has a duty to change that.
Germany wants Israel to “end the occupation”? Well, guess what, so do we. Help us create a climate in which we can safely do so. What better way to resurrect and give real value to 50 years of a special relationship.