When German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Jerusalem last week for a joint German-Israeli cabinet meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she reiterated her government’s commitment to the security of the Jewish state and noted the dangers of the Iranian regime in the Middle East.
Ten years ago, Merkel delivered an address to the Knesset declaring Israel’s security to be “non-negotiable” for her government, as well as part of the Federal Republic’s raison d’être.
As a result, Merkel’s popularity among Israelis soared during the nation’s 60th birthday. The pressing question now: Will her important security rhetoric finally be matched by actions this year, as Israel continues to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its rebirth in 1948?
The problem is that the so-called “special relationship” between the two countries is mired in a widening crisis due to Merkel’s devotion to the profoundly flawed Iran nuclear deal, along with her foreign minister’s efforts to bust U.S. sanctions on the clerical rulers in Tehran.
Netanyahu’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly in late September illustrated the German-Israeli rift: “Europe and others are appeasing Iran by trying to help it bypass those new sanctions,” stated Netanyahu.
Merkel’s Social Democratic Party foreign minister, Heiko Maas, who said he entered politics ”because of Auschwitz,” argued for an alternative method to facilitate financial transfers to the Islamic Republic of Iran, to evade the United States plan to disconnect Tehran from the SWIFT system. SWIFT permits cross-country money transfers and blocking Iran’s access to international payments would cripple its economy.
To her credit, Merkel rejected his plan to bypass SWIFT.
Despite her opposition to circumventing SWIFT, she and Maas have not objected to the European Union’s “special purpose vehicle (SPV)” mechanism to permit financial transactions with Iran. In short, the SPV aims to stymie robust U.S. financial and energy sanctions on Iran’s regime slated to go into effect on Nov. 5.
The United States seeks to negotiate a new atomic agreement to stop Iran’s nuclear program, blunt Iranian-sponsored terrorism, and restrict its ballistic-missile program.
The SPV would give the mullah regime’s economy a potent, continuing shot in the arm. It is worth recalling that when congressional pressure compelled the Brussels-based SWIFT to cut off Iran from SWIFT in 2012, the punitive measure played a key role in forcing Iran’s rulers to return to the negotiating table to curb its nuclear program.
Israel’s government vehemently opposed the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the Iran nuclear deal, because it provides the Islamic Republic post-expiration with a legal path to secure atomic weapons.
Disturbingly, Chancellor Merkel has ignored the findings of state intelligence agencies in her county that reported in 2018 that Iran sought technology for weapons of mass destruction. Merkel has not addressed this year’s intelligence agency reports that contradicted her public statements in favor of in the atomic accord. There are ample intelligence reports that should undercut Merkel’s unwavering faith in the efficacy of the 2015 Iran deal.
In June, the intelligence agency of Baden-Württemberg state wrote in its annual report: “Iran continued to undertake, as did Pakistan and Syria, efforts to obtain goods and know-how to be used for the development of weapons of mass destruction and to optimize corresponding missile-delivery systems.”
In the neighboring state of Bavaria, the intelligence agency wrote in April that “Iran, North Korea, Syria and Pakistan are making efforts to expand their conventional weapons arsenal through the production of weapons of mass destruction.”
In July, the city-state of Hamburg’s intelligence report said that “Iran continues to pursue unchanged an ambitious program to modernize its rocket technology with the goal of a continued increase of the reach of the missiles.”
Despite the intelligence data, Merkel has stuck with her view that “[Germany] remains committed to the nuclear agreement. We think it was well-negotiated.”
For Germany, Israel’s security is negotiable in 2018. Will Merkel honor her 2008 pledge in 2018 and follow up her Knesset address with concrete action at a critical juncture in Israel’s history?
This would entail reversing course and pursuing a new policy that includes pulling out of the atomic deal and joining U.S. sanctions designed to radically alter Iran’s behavior. A policy that sees Iran as a foe would restore meaning to the “special” Israel-German relationship.
Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Asaf Romirowsky is the executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.