German officials repeat that Israel’s security is important to them, but can't really explain what that means

Four more years of friendship, four more years of distrust

Angela Merkel expects to be reelected in Germany next Sunday, and an advocate of dialogue with Hamas who accused Israel of running an ‘apartheid regime’ in Hebron might end up as her deputy

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

PM Benjamin Netanyahu with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, January 18, 2010. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)
PM Benjamin Netanyahu with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, January 18, 2010. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

BERLIN — Germany’s Chancellor Angel Merkel is set to cruise to an easy reelection this Sunday, securing a third term at the helm of one of the world’s most important countries and one of Israel’s closest allies. But while Berlin is, besides the United States, Jerusalem’s best friend and remains committed to unswerving support for Israel on the international stage, the personal relationship between Merkel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been rocky over the last few years.

Despite Merkel’s assurances that Israel’s security is a cornerstone of German foreign policy, actual backing amounts to little more than limited military aid and supportive declarations. Merkel categorically rejects any military intervention by German troops in the Middle East, including to support a US-led strike on Syria. The chancellor and her foreign policy advisers also firmly oppose Israeli settlements in the West Bank and reject Jerusalem’s argument that Israel needs a permanent military presence in the West Bank to guarantee the Jewish state’s security.

While surveys predict a comfortable victory for Merkel’s center-right party, one possible outcome of the September 22 election could see the foreign minister’s post, and that of Merkel’s deputy, go to the leader of the Social Democrats — a self-declared friend of Israel, yet one who last year accused the Jewish state of running an “apartheid regime” in Hebron and who advocates for dialogue with Hamas.

After a lackluster campaign, in which foreign policy issues were almost entirely absent, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leads comfortably in all polls. Her party is predicted to garner between 39 and 41 percent of the vote, about 6 percent more than four years ago. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) is expected to come in a distant second, polling somewhere between 23 and 27 percent, giving its candidate for chancellor, Peer Steinbrück, little reason to believe he can unseat her. Asked who is better suited for the top job, every second German points to Merkel; only about 30-35 percent name her competitor from the center-left.

What makes the 2013 election interesting is the question of whether Merkel’s traditional coalition partner — the pro-business Liberal Democrats (FDP) — will pass the 5 percent threshold needed to enter parliament. Since 2009, when the party reached nearly 15 percent, it has decreased dramatically in the polls and now fears for its very survival. (This past Sunday, the FDP received only 3 percent of the vote in elections for the Bavarian parliament, and Germany’s most populous state is considered a barometer for national trends.)

But even if the FDP — the party of Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle — does gain 5 or 6 percent, as current polls predict, and enters the Bundestag, Merkel’s CDU will still not have the necessary majority for a stable coalition. (On the other hand, the SPD and its traditional coalition partner, the Green Party, are also far from a majority.) Therefore, the most probable outcome of the election is a so-called Grand Coalition of the two large centrist parties, with Merkel as chancellor and with the leader of the SPD as vice chancellor and foreign minister.

President Shimon Peres speaking at the Bundestag in Berlin, January 27, 2010 (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)
President Shimon Peres speaking at the Bundestag in Berlin, January 27, 2010 (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

But Steinbrück, the Social Democrats’ candidate for chancellor, is unlikely to agree to such a deal, according to political scientist Marco Michel of the Federal Agency for Civic Education. “Steinbrück is 66, he will not play second fiddle to Merkel,” Michel predicted. Therefore, if the Social Democrats fail to replace Merkel, Steinbrück will most probably retire from political life and let party chairman Sigmar Gabriel become vice chancellor and foreign minister in a coalition with Merkel, Michel said.

Wary after Westerwelle

In Jerusalem, not everyone would be thrilled about Gabriel replacing Westerwelle, who is perceived as a true friend. (Unlike many of his European colleagues, Westerwelle had good personal ties with former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman.)

Although Gabriel has visited Israel about 20 times and considers himself a supporter, controversial comments he made last year after a visit to the region may lead Jerusalem to suspect he has less patience for Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians than his predecessor.

“I was just in Hebron. There’s a legal vacuum there for Palestinians. This is an apartheid regime, for which there is no justification,” Gabriel posted on his Facebook wall in March 2012. The post quickly drew hundreds of responses, mostly from pro-Israel surfers, some of whom threatened to cancel their memberships in his party. Gabriel quickly clarified his remarks in two follow-up posts, saying that he didn’t mean to compare Israel with South Africa’s apartheid regime but that he was “immensely angry” about how Palestinians were treated in Hebron.

“I think [Israel’s] current settlement policy is wrong and I consider the conditions [in Hebron] undignified,” wrote Gabriel. “We are not doing any favors to us or our friends in Israel if we continue veiling our criticism in diplomatic figures of speech.”

The situation for Palestinians in Hebron is “indeed terrible,” Gabriel opined, adding that even Israeli soldiers he met there told him they found the conditions “unbearable.” Israel has the right to defend itself, as it is the only state in the world whose neighbors question its right to exist and whose citizens suffer daily from rocket attacks, he asserted. “But that is no justification for continuing with a settlement policy such as the one that can be witnessed in Hebron. It shouldn’t lead to us prohibiting ourselves from criticizing the errors of the Israeli government.”

Sigmar Gabriel (photo credit: CC-BY DavidG, Wikipedia )
Sigmar Gabriel (photo credit: CC-BY DavidG, Wikipedia )

In another post, Gabriel answered critics who were offended by him referring to Israel as an apartheid regime. “I am aware that this a very drastic term. But that’s exactly how the Palestinians in Hebron see their situation. That drastic term is what came to my mind during the talks and visits in Hebron.”

Gabriel said he did not mean to compare Israel with apartheid South Africa, as that would be “more than unfair” to the Jewish state. “But the humiliating way Palestinians are dealt with in Hebron exceeds much of what one is used to from the West Bank. And this makes even someone like me, who supports Israel, immensely angry.”

Gabriel is also on the record saying he wants Israel to engage in dialogue with Hamas. “Hamas is a factor in this conflict. And you can’t solve a conflict if one factor is being ignored,” Gabriel told reporters in Jerusalem in 2012. He also said that he fully supports the Palestinians’ efforts to have Palestine accepted as a member state of the United Nations, “because there is no counterargument to that.”

Despite these comments, officials in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem this week said they weren’t worried about Gabriel becoming foreign minister. “That’s the way it is in democracies: elected leaders come and go,” an official told The Times of Israel. “Personal relationships are a mystery. Who expected gay, liberal Westerwelle to get along so well with hawkish and powerful Liberman?”

While some see Gabriel as the top candidate for the Foreign Ministry post, others doubt that his party would agree to join Merkel in a governing coalition. Such a partnership, first tried out after the 2005 elections, resulted in a historically poor result for the Social Democrats in the 2009 elections. “I can imagine there are a lot of people in the SPD who aren’t going to be interested at all in being junior partners with Merkel again. They saw where that led them last time,” Cologne University political analyst Thomas Jaeger told Reuters.

Another possible, though unlikely, scenario, in case the Christian Democrats and Liberal Democrats alone fail to get a stable majority, is Merkel’s conservative party teaming up with the Greens.

“But the Greens and the CDU are far away from each other ideologically,” said Özcan Mutlu, a member of the Berlin House of Representatives and Bundestag hopeful for the environmentalist party. To be able to govern, a coalition needs a majority in both the Bundestag and the Bundesrat (a legislative chamber comprising regional representatives) and there are currently no CDU-Greens partnerships in any of the 16 German states, he said. “To govern with them would be torture, and we’re not sadomasochists.”

The outsiders

There is also some potential for surprises in an otherwise dull election campaign: two novel parties with high hopes (but little actual chance) of making it into the Bundestag. The Piratenpartei, a local offshoot of the global pirate movement with 30,000 members, is already represented in four regional parliaments and at some point was predicted to get 10-13 percent in national elections. But since the party’s charismatic political director Marina Weisband — a Kiev-born Jewish immigrant to Germany — announced her withdrawal from politics last year, the party has plunged in the polls and seems unlikely to clear the 5 percent threshold needed to enter the Bundestag.

Pirate Party official Markus Barenhoff (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/TOI)
Pirate Party official Markus Barenhoff (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/TOI)

Yet party leaders are tirelessly working on their campaign, promoting their message of transparency and grassroots democracy, still believing that a turnaround is possible. “Our voters aren’t the types to answer pollsters on the phone,” the party’s deputy chairman, Markus Barenhoff, said, adding that 30 percent of voters are still undecided and that a concerted advertising campaign could still bring about the desired support.

The Pirates only adopted a foreign policy platform a few months ago. “We don’t have any specific positions on different countries,” Barenhoff, wearing sneakers and a black-hooded sweater, told The Times of Israel recently in the Pirates’ Berlin campaign headquarters. After a lengthy debate, the party decided not to rule out military interventions in third countries entirely. Yet rather than intervene in conflicts, such as the Syrian civil war, it would be better to do more “to prevent” situations where military action becomes necessary, he said. “I think what we don’t want to get to is to have this responsibility to protect.” Force should only be used when a country is either directly attacked or when sanctioned by the United Nations, he said.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Piratenpartei does not “have any official position,” said Barenhoff, who visited Israel for a few weeks in 2010. “It’s a very complicated situation.” On a personal level, he added: “As a German, one has to be pretty, pretty cautious.” His hope is that via the Internet the people of the Middle East will discover that they are all humans and all simply want to be happy, he said.

Some of Merkel’s closest foreign policy advisers are totally disillusioned about the peace talks, convinced that Israel is on its way to becoming an apartheid state like South Africa

Another party that garnered much media coverage but currently faces an uphill battle in the polls is the Alternative fuer Deutschland. Founded in April by a group of academics, the party opposes bailouts for European countries in financial trouble.

While few believe the new party stands a chance, at least one recent survey predicted results that could give the AfD some hope. If disappointed CDU supporters and a few protest voters decide to place their trust in the hands of a six-month- old party run by intellectuals, anything is possible. “It could still get exciting,” top pollster Klaus-Peter Schöppner told the German weekly Der Spiegel last week regarding the AfD.

Neo-Nazis are playing only a marginal role in this election. A handful of far-right parties are running: Republikaner, Die Rechte, Pro Deutschland and the National Democratic Party (NPD), which is present in two regional parliaments. But not even the NPD stands the faintest chance of making it into the Bundestag. Together, all four parties on the far-right spectrum are not expected to gather more than 2 percent.

A demonstration of members of the far-right German NPD party last year (photo credit: CC BY-SA Ubiquit23, Flickr)
A demonstration by members of the far-right German NPD party last year (photo credit: CC BY-SA Ubiquit23, Flickr)

Regardless of the election’s outcome, Germany was and will remain one of Israel’s staunchest allies, both in terms of military assistance and strong backing in international forums such as the United Nations. This support doubtless stems from Germany’s dark history; politicians and diplomats in Berlin instinctively feel they “owe” the Jewish state something, though many are highly critical of the course that Israel’s right-wing government has been taking.

Doubts over Netanyahu

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, dubbed the “washing machine” by locals because of its peculiar architecture, there is a general mistrust regarding Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embrace after attending a joint press conference in Berlin, Germany on December 06, 2012. (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)
Angela Merkel and Benjamin Netanyahu embrace in Berlin, December 06, 2012. (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

Some of Merkel’s foreign policy advisers believe Israel’s participation in the newly resumed peace talks is all bluff. They are totally disillusioned about the prospects for peace, wondering why the Palestinians even agreed to negotiate, despite knowing full well that the prime minister will never agree to their terms for a Palestinian state.

But no German official will ever dare to air such assessments on the record — at least not for the time being. And for all the distrust, Berlin has declared again and again that Israel’s wellbeing is one of its foremost foreign policy goals.

In a 2008 speech in the Knesset, Merkel 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.

Therefore, German President Joachim Gauck said last year during a visit, rather less dramatically, that “Israel’s security and right of existence are determining factors of German policy — Israel shall live in peace and secure borders.” When reporters asked him a day later whether he agreed with Merkel’s dictum of Israel’s security being Germany’s “Staatsraison,” he responded that he wouldn’t have used that phrase. “I don’t want to think in war scenarios,” he said, adding, however, that “Germany should be the very last country to revoke its friendship and solidarity to Israel.”

Merkel, asked last week what her commitment meant concretely in a time of crisis, 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.”

Last week, The Times of Israel asked Lars Zimmerman, a Bundestag hopeful from the chancellor’s CDU party who is running in Berlin’s Pankow district, what he thought of Merkel’s statement. For long seconds he didn’t say anything, thinking hard about an answer. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “I’ve never thought about it.” While he doesn’t believe that Merkel intended to promise German boots on the ground in case Israel was under fire, he added a few moments later, the “protection of Israel” was “absolutely” a cornerstone of the CDU’s foreign policy.

CDU candidate Lars Zimmermann (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
CDU candidate Lars Zimmermann (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Israel’s security is important to German officials, but no one — as Zimmerman’s hesitant response underlined — can really explain what that means. Berlin has helped Jerusalem acquire advanced submarines and vowed to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons. “Containment is not an option,” is a slogan used by some senior German officials. Yet no one is willing to elaborate on what Berlin intends to do if Tehran indeed gets the bomb. And there are no German contingency plans for a possible scenario in which Israel launches a strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities and the Islamic Republic and its allies retaliate, a senior official admitted recently. (Still, another source in Berlin said that if Israel were under attack and asked Germany for Patriot anti-missile batteries, “we wouldn’t think twice.”)

Similarly, Germany has declared that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, but both Merkel and her Social Democrat challenger agree that the Bundeswehr will under no circumstances join military action against the Syrian regime for using them. Scarred by World War II, many Germans are exceedingly wary of military campaigns abroad. “It’s better to debate for a thousand hours than to have one minute of war,” one prominent FDP politician said earlier this month.

After the September 22 election, the relationship between Germany and Israel will likely remain courteous, at least outwardly, with Berlin supporting Israel via friendly statements and practical military and diplomatic assistance. But behind the scenes, the German government — regardless of who sits in the Chancellery or the Foreign Ministry — will not change its longstanding positions regarding Israel and the Middle East, which include a complete rejection of any military intervention on Israel’s behalf, and more importantly, staunch opposition to Israeli settlements, and a deep distrust in Jerusalem’s policies toward the Palestinians.

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