In March 2008, German Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the Knesset, and unequivocally stated that Israel’s right to exist and its security are part of Germany’s supreme national interest.
It was not the first time that the chancellor voiced such a commitment, but saying so in the Israeli parliament lent her declaration tremendous resonance. Merkel was the first foreign prime minister to address the Knesset—an honor usually reserved only for heads of state—and she was the first foreign dignitary to visit Israel to mark 60 years since its inception.
Ten years have passed since then, and today the question of what Merkel meant when she spoke of Israel’s right to exist as part of Germany’s national interest is more poignant than ever.
Does Germany stand with Israel because of a sense of historic obligation to preserve the memory of the terrible crime committed by the Germans against the Jewish people, and recognizes the right of the Jews living in Israel to determine their own fate on the basis of that terrible historical memory? Or is it that Germany is perhaps assuming the right to decide for the Jewish people in the land of Israel what its future will be?
It seems that a troubling trend has taken over the German establishment’s approach towards Israel, by which Berlin sees Israel as something of a problematic colony that refuses to accept the burden of the central government in Berlin or Brussels.
This is not a new phenomenon; it dates back to the days when Likud came to power in 1977, 12 years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and West Germany.
Germany got along with “pioneering” Israel much better. The problems began when socialist, secular Israel gave way to a national, religious Israel—one that is not a member of the Socialist International and insisted on its rights without overly considering what other nations had to say about it.
At first, official Germany refrained from voicing its displeasure with Israel’s conduct, but in recent years, under Merkel, Germany has allowed itself to cross line after line and intervene (in a rather insolent manner) in Israel’s internal affairs, ostensibly out of concern for the future the Jewish state.
Political organizations and private foundations promote the interests of Israeli parties opposed to the policies of the elected right-wing government and actively oppose laws passed by the current Israeli government; German government ministries fund bodies that opposed Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and encourage boycotts against it; German diplomats vote against Israel in various U.N. bodies; and not one word about Germany’s mobilization to save UNRWA, the Palestinian refugees’ aid agency, whose sole purpose is to perpetuate Palestinian refugeedom despite the fact that it undermines Israel.
Seeking to preserve the unique relations between the two countries, previous Israeli governments came to terms with this situation. In hindsight, however, this created a situation in which Germany is attuned only with the “peace-seeking” Israeli left, which nostalgically adheres to the notion of “pioneering Israel” and refuses to see the “new Israel.”
Merkel and the rest of her cabinet must understand that the economic and technological miracle they so admire in Israel has been made possible by the many changes Israel has undergone in recent years.
As Merkel’s fourth term as chancellor will most likely be her last, the most significant contribution she can currently make to the future relations between Israel and Germany is to foster an open dialogue into the many problems plaguing these ties.
But this should not be done in a patronizing way, rather with openness and the understanding that this is the only way in which to ensure solid, warm long-term relations between Germany and Israel.
Most of all, however, it’s time for Germany to recognize Israel as it is, as it cannot impose on Israel Germany’s notion of what it thinks Israel should be.
Eldad Beck is an Israeli journalist and author.