“Let me say it again very clearly: For us the security of Israel and the security of all Jews in Germany are non-negotiable and Israel can always rely on that.” – these were the words of Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in a joint press conference with his Israeli counterpart, Gabi Ashkenazi, during his visit to Israel on 20 May. Maas’s visit come as the second from a European official following that of his Greek counterpart, Nikos Dendias, who paid a visit to Israel eight days after the recent escalation between Israel and Palestine triggered by the bloody clashes in East Jerusalem following the expulsion of some Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah in favor of Israeli settlers, a situation that gave rise to a wave of solidarity in the Gaza Strip, firing missiles into Israel.
During his visit, Mass spoke to the Israeli government and society about the bilateral relations between the two countries, adopting a political discourse potentially with a historical and moral dimension, passing on a strong solidarity message that reiterates support of the German leadership to Israel confirming Israel’s right to defend itself intra alia targeting the infrastructure that is likely to serve as a center for future attacks, describing the attacks facing Israel as being “unacceptable”.
Mass underlined that the goal of his visit is to help stop the ceasefire, noting that, all through the previous week, he kept regular and close contact with his Israeli counterpart as well as diplomats in Cairo, Amman, Doha, and Washington besides visiting the Palestinian president in Ramallah. Apparently, the German stance is in keeping with the long-standing official German position toward the Israeli-Palestinian escalation and it can be detailed in light of the following points:
1- Overlooking attacks: Irrespective of causes of escalation, its results, and abuses of the occupying Israeli forces in Jerusalem, Germany’s stance has always been supportive of Israel and condemning of Hamas. On 12 May, Steffen Seibert, Government spokesman of Germany, stated that, “Israel has the right to defend itself in the face of attacks of Hamas”, calling on Hamas to stop these attacks. Seibert’s statements came after Merkel’s call with her Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, on 17 May, in which she underscored Germany’s solidarity with Israel. On a related context, Merkel had a call with the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas on 20 May, where the two parties agreed on the need to continue supporting the ceasefire initiatives, according to Merkel’s spokesperson press release.
2- Contradictory support: Despite Germany’s unwavering support for Israel, it still maintains its long-held position of the two-state solution and wants stability for both the Palestinians and Israelis. Moreover, Germany refuses the Israeli establishment of and expansion in settlements, considering it a factor that derives tension between the two sides. In continuation of its conflicting stance, Maas pledged to provide €40 million as a humanitarian aid to civilians in Gaza. This declaration came on Tuesday, 18 May, before the scheduled meeting of EU foreign ministers.
3- Media bias: In the framing of their coverage of the recent war on Gaza, some German media showed biased-support for Israel, including Deutsche Welle which adopted a subjective policy by banning its reporters and editors from covering events objectively as has been disclosed in an internal reporting guide that was leaked and shared on social media in which we read, “Holocaust’s legacy and Germany’s special responsibility towards Israel remain cornerstones of the country’s constitution and its foreign policy.” The report added, “We respect freedom of speech and opinion and people’s right to criticize any of the sides involved. However, criticism of Israel becomes antisemitism when it attempts to tarnish, discredit and delegitimize the state of Israel or Jewish people and culture per se.”
4- Heavy hand on demonstrations: Germany has adopted a strict approach towards the abuses carried out in the Pro-Palestine demonstrations in Berlin and other cities, reflected in the burning of the Israeli flag. Rigor manifested itself in various forms including the call of some German officials to tighten restrictions on antis-Semitic acts such as the ones demonstrations saw and policing or preventing demonstrations to avoid risks of potential clashes between pro-and anti-conflict demonstrators so that the conflict doesn’t spill over into Germany bringing it into a state of instability. Besides, the German government was fearing a rise in anti-Semitic incidents that had already been caused by demonstrations simultaneously with burning the Israeli flag outside a synagogue in Muenster and Bonn, hoisted in front of Düsseldorf City Hall by unidentified persons, which prompted the Public Prosecution and State Security to open an investigation for desecration of flags and state symbols of foreign state and damage to objects of public interest, as the police reported. In response to the incident of burning the flag, the mayor hoisted the Israeli flag again noting that, “attacks on the Jewish community including the deliberate burning of the Israeli flag in front of Düsseldorf City Hall are unacceptable and we strongly condemn them.”, adding that “the city stands firmly behind the Jewish community and the state of Israel.” In the same context, Felix Klein, Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Antisemitism, called on Muslim unions to distance themselves from anti-Jewish violence and attacks of Jewish worship places and advocate for non-violence and appeasement among Muslims in Germany pointing out that supporting Palestinians or criticizing the Israeli government is not an excuse for such incidents that took place in Bonn and Gelsenkirchen, among others. Against the backdrop of burning the Israeli flag, Merkel’s spokesman noted, “Our democracy will not tolerate anti-Semitic demonstrations.”
5- Banning specific organizations: On 19 May, the Federal Ministry of the Interior announced banning three groups that has links with Hezbollah for accusations of raising funds for families of killed Hezbollah fighters. This has been declared in a tweet by the Spokesperson of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, “Berlin has banned three groups that are financing the terrorist Hezbollah.” In another statement, the Minister of Interior said, “Whoever supports terror won’t be safe in Germany… They won’t find any place to retreat to in our country”, noting that police raids are being carried out in several German states in tandem with this ban. This step came amidst the Israeli escalation on the Gaza Strip following Germany’s banning of the political wing of Hezbollah in April 2020 that was preceded by banning of its military wing; thus, cordoning off all venues that Hamas might retreat to as a safe refuge to get assistance in its struggle with Israel. The timing of the ban is unmistakably an explicit message of solidarity with Israel.
During the recent escalation between Israel and Palestine, Germany followed several mechanisms to support Israel, which raised questions about its position, all the more so as Germany is one of the actors in the Middle East, supports the two-state solution for settlement of the Palestinian cause, and refuses Israel’s settlement policy. However, the German stance can be interpreted based on the following drivers:
● Historic legacy: Germany’s moral responsibility to the Holocaust still dominate the positions of German leaders and officials toward Israel, as well as their role in the Middle East, who all share a recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Merkel (who visited Israel seven times since taking office in 2005) underscored this in her historical speech to the Knesset in 2008 stating that, “…every German Government and every German Chancellor before me has shouldered Germany’s special historical responsibility for Israel’s security. This historical responsibility is part of my country’s raison d’être. For me as German Chancellor, therefore, Israel’s security will never be open to negotiation.” Merkel reiterated the German guilt towards the Jews in a press conference in February 2018, stating “…We as Germans are responsible for what happened during the Holocaust under Nazism.” Her statement came against the backdrop of a bill approved by the Polish government. Under the new Polish law, persons found guilty of suggesting the Polish nation responsibility for the Holocaust could be fined or could receive up to three years in prison.
In the same vein, following his visit to the World Holocaust Remembrance Center (Yad Vashem) on 25 March 2018, German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas signed the guest book, writing, “Germany bears the responsibility for the most barbarous crime in the history of humanity. The Holocaust remains a warning and duty to us to campaign for human rights and tolerance worldwide.” Also, in her recent visit to Israel in October 2018, Merkel noted, “The fact that today we are bound by bonds of friendship is an inestimable gift, and it is an improbable gift against the background of our history.” This has been reiterated during the recent escalation with a demonstration of solidarity organized in Berlin by a group of Jewish and non-Jewish associations in which demonstrators raised placards proclaiming, “Israel has the right to defend itself”, and “Free Gaza from Hamas” in addition to politicians making statements on the responsibility of Germany towards protecting Israel due to its historical legacy. This demonstration was organized hours before the ceasefire decision was reached on 20 May.
● Scientific collaboration: The scientific cooperation between German scientists and their Israeli counterparts, which started late in the 1960s, is a fundamental cornerstone in the relations between the two countries. After the US, Germany is the second major sponsor of scientific research in Israel. Minerva, which receives annual funding from the German government, is one of the major foundations that supports research projects of the Israeli Weizmann Institute. Several inter-ministerial cooperation agreements have been signed between the two countries including the agreement signed by the Israeli Ministry of Defense in 1973 for cooperation between ministries with a focus on applied sciences. Also, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research have partnerships with the Israeli Ministry of Science, Technology, and Space, and the Ministry of Economy. Priorities of cooperation between ministries included various fields such as natural and marine sciences, earth sciences, environmental research, resource research, biotechnology, information and communication technologies, water technologies, cancer research, civil security research (which was given recent attention in 2009), and applied nanotechnology research through signing a declaration of intent in February 2016, to promote cooperation between the two sides in this field. Also, the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development provide an annual funding for almost 60 German-Israeli civil research projects in all sciences.
● The military dimension: The German-Israeli military cooperation is characterized by a sort of persistence and secrecy for fear of accountability under arms export regulations that prohibits exporting weapons and armaments to potential conflict areas and countries affected by war and for avoiding provoking tension with regional powers. Nevertheless, Israel remains the top recipient of the German military technology. Germany subsidizes weapons’ sales to Israel as has been evident in the deal of three Dolphin submarines to Israel that were especially designed to the Israeli navy and which Germany financed 50 percent of their cost. In August 2006, Germany funded 30 percent of the cost of two submarines that were delivered to Israel in 2010. Receiving these three Dolphin submarines, Commander of the Israeli Navy announced in January 2019, a sixth submarine, named Dragon, to be manufactured by Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft will be delivered to Israel in 2020. Earlier in October 2017, the German government announced signing off a subsidized deal to sell three other submarines to Israel. The deal was affected by the corruption investigations carried out in Israel. Notably, the German-Israeli military cooperation took a new dimension as has been reflected in the joint air force drills. The Israeli Air Force conducted its first training in Germany in August 2020. A year and a half earlier of this, the German Air Force received training on operating the unmanned aerial vehicle, Heron TP, at Tel Nof Air Base as part of €1 billion worth deal between Israel and Germany through an Airbus subsidiary and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd.
● Trade relations: After the US, Germany is Israel’s second major trading partner. According to a report by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy in September 2020 titled, “Facts about German Foreign Trade”, in 2019, the total value of the German exports to Israel totaled €4.6 billion while the Israeli exports to Germany amounted to €2.2 billion. Being part of a worldwide network of more than 12 bilateral German Chambers of Commerce in 80 countries and the official representative of the German business and economy in Israel, the German-Israeli Chamber of Commerce plays a crucial role in helping Israeli and German companies penetrate new markets.
While the German stance on the recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict has undertaken several tracks for harmonization between the two sides toward a ceasefire, it was obviously biased towards Israel, considering this support as Germany’s moral responsibility toward Israel. For the Palestinian side, Germany’s role remained limited, not living up to the desired level of action nor showing any decisive position since the outset of events. Basically, Germany’s response has been mostly either too careful or late.
Indeed, the German role in the Palestinian cause is not expected to go beyond providing humanitarian and financial aid and supporting the two-state solution yet without exerting any pressures toward that as Germany’s relations with Israel will remain as close as ever. If Germany is to play any effective role, it might be involved in negotiations with regional actors for the sake of coordination. However, the settlements issue will remain a stumbling block in the way of German-Israeli relations.