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Interview'There is an awakening taking place in Germany'

Germany is Israel’s most important ally after US, says new envoy in Berlin

Israeli ambassador Ron Prosor says PM Lapid during visit will stress Iran’s destabilizing activities to a Germany undergoing profound changes in how it sees the world

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor speaks at the UN headquarters in New York on January 22, 2015, during an informal meeting of the plenary of the General Assembly to address concerns of a rise in anti-Semitic violence worldwide. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO/JEWEL SAMAD)
Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor speaks at the UN headquarters in New York on January 22, 2015, during an informal meeting of the plenary of the General Assembly to address concerns of a rise in anti-Semitic violence worldwide. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO/JEWEL SAMAD)

Prime Minister Yair Lapid is traveling to Germany this week to emphasize the deep strategic and historical relationship between Israel and the largest country in the European Union, and will discuss the threat posed by Iran with German leaders, Israel’s ambassador in Berlin said on Sunday.

“The trip of the prime minister, in essence, is saying, ‘I traveled to Washington, I traveled to France, I traveled to the different countries of the Abraham Accords,'” Ron Prosor told The Times of Israel by phone before Lapid took off for Germany. “‘I’m coming to Germany because this is the most substantial relationship we have in Europe.'”

Lapid departed Sunday afternoon for Germany, where he will meet Monday with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. Steinmeier and Lapid will meet at the House of the Wannsee Conference, where Nazi officials finalized plans for the Holocaust, with survivors who are flying with the prime minister.

Prosor emphasized that “the relationship between Germany and Israel is a strategic relationship.”

“German-Israeli relations are the most intense strategic relationship that Israel has with Europe. After the United States of America, this is the most strategic relationship bilaterally that Israel has with any country,” Prosor said.

German’s Foreign Office calls ties with Israel “a cornerstone of German foreign policy.” Germany is Israel’s top trading partner in Europe, and the long-standing quiet military and intelligence relationship is increasingly coming out into the open.

Prosor highlighted that ex-chancellor Angela Merkel said the security of the state of Israel was central to Germany’s national interest.

“The new chancellor Scholz has repeated that and politicians from all sides of the political divide agree on that,” he said.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid arrives at the airport in Berlin with Ukraine-born Holocaust survivor Shoshana Trister on September 11, 2022. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

Iran’s nuclear program will lead the agenda in talks between Lapid and his German counterparts.

“The prime minister is going to explain and try to persuade the P5+1 that the Europeans [already] put an offer on the table,” Prosor said. The P5+1 countries are the world powers, including Germany, that are taking part in nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Instead of taking the offer, the Iranians “are beginning from there to have additional demands and requests,” Prosor said.

European mediators last month appeared to make progress in restoring the 2015 nuclear accord as Iran largely agreed to a proposed final text. But chances dimmed when the United States sent a reply, to which Iran in turn responded with a fresh demand that the International Atomic Energy Agency close its investigation into several undeclared nuclear sites.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani waves as he leaves after talks at the Coburg Palais, the venue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna on August 4, 2022. (Alex Halada/AFP)

“The prime minister will be focused on saying, ‘Dear friends, Iran means instability,”” Prosor said. “‘Iran undermines everything, including the Houthis trying to destabilize Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. If you want to achieve something in the region, you have to make sure Iran does not have nuclear weapons.'”

“And he’s going to be vocal about this,” Prosor said of Lapid.

Prosor, a former ambassador to the UK and the UN, took up the post in Berlin in August, returning to the country where he started his diplomatic career in 1986 as spokesman for Israel’s mission to West Germany in Bonn. Prosor, whose father was born in Berlin and fled when the Nazis came to power, described his appointment as envoy to Germany as “coming full circle.”

The veteran diplomat said Lapid is coming to Berlin during what the Germans call “shifting times.”

“It means that there is an awakening taking place in Germany on all sides of the political divide, basically saying, ‘For many years we had very good relations with Russia and Putin,'” Prosor explained. “‘We closed our eyes to things he was doing. What he did in Ukraine breaks all the rules, crosses all the red lines and now we have allocated 100 million euros to defend ourselves since we understand we have to defend ourselves. And we understand that we have become dependent on Russia on the energy side, on gas and oil.'”

Prosor’s predecessor, Jeremy Issacharoff, described in May a “different Germany, a Germany that realized they need to be very much more prepared, capable, to defend [them]selves, to project deterrence, to have credible military force that is defensive in nature… It is closer to the Israeli narrative.”

The German Green Party, traditionally seen as dovish, is now leading the campaign to send heavy weapons to Ukraine.

The country is also facing a dire energy crunch and price spike, as it turns to coal to make up for its shuttered nuclear plants and cuts in natural gas from Russia.

Workers walk past facilities to receive and distribute natural gas on the grounds of gas transport and pipeline network operator Gascade in Lubmin, northeastern Germany, close to the border with Poland, on August 30, 2022. (Odd Andersen/AFP)

“We have a whole change in Germany so that when the prime minister comes, this is a different thinking Germany,” Prosor said.

In addition to Iran’s nuclear program, Lapid and German officials will discuss bilateral cooperation on defense, including on Israel’s Arrow ballistic missile defense system, though no major announcements are expected this week.

“Just think of what it means historically that after 74 years, which is basically nothing in history, that small Israel will contribute to defending Germany and other big players in Europe,” Prosor said.

A memorandum of understanding will also be announced on a youth exchange program between the two countries, according to which Israel will join France and Poland as the leading countries for German youth exchanges.

Many Germans view Israel critically despite the countries’ strong ties, however. A survey by an independent German foundation released this month found that over a third of Germans believe Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is essentially the same as the Nazi genocide of Jews during the Holocaust. The survey also found that Israelis have a higher regard for Germany than Germans do for Israel.

Facing the past

Despite the forward-looking initiatives in the works, the past always casts a long shadow over German-Israeli ties. Lapid is bringing Holocaust survivors with him to Germany, and will hold a conversation with them along with Steinmeier Monday at the House of the Wannsee Conference, the Berlin villa where the Nazis planned the extermination of European Jewry.

Last week,  presidents of Israel and Germany led commemorations marking 50 years since 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics, with Steinmeier asking forgiveness from the families of the victims and admitting responsibility for a litany of failings.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier speaks at a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, at the Fuerstenfeldbruck Air Base, southern Germany, on September 5, 2022. (Thomas KIENZLE / AFP)

Steinmeier’s apology came after a bitter fight by bereaved relatives for Berlin to own up to mistakes that enabled the massacre and for compensation.

A dispute over the financial offer previously made by Berlin to victims’ relatives had threatened to sour the ceremony, with family members planning a boycott.

But a deal was finally reached last Wednesday for Berlin to provide 28 million euros ($28 million) in compensation. It also — for the first time — saw the German state acknowledge its “responsibility” in failings that led to the deaths of the Israelis. President Isaac Herzog visited Germany to attend a 50 year anniversary ceremony for the Munich massacre.

“The two presidents, both Herzog and Steinmeier, worked very, very hard to reach a solution,” Prosor said. “There’s never going to be closure, but at least to bring some solutions to the families who are absolutely right. They waited for fifty years.”

Israelis with a black crepe covered Israeli flag, photographed in the Munich Olympic stadium, September 6, 1972, during the memorial service for the 11 murdered Israeli team members. (AP Photo)

Prosor praised the establishment of a commission of German and Israeli historians to study newly released files from the 1972 Olympics.

“All the mistakes, everything was basically shoved under the carpet and didn’t see the light of day,” he said. “With the establishment of a commission of historians, this is going to come out, and it’s important for it to come out because this is scrutinizing the past. And we all deserve, especially the families, to know what really happened out there”

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