Germany's Middle East Policy: Equilibrium and Growing Self-Confidence

German Chancellor Merkel welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Olmert at the Chancellery in Berlin. (Photo: Michael Kappeler / AFP-Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert praised Chancellor Angela Merkel almost ceaselessly during his controversial visit to Berlin in December. Controversial, because the prime minister seized the opportunity to reveal a secret. In an interview with German news channel N24, Olmert said that Israel possessed nuclear weapons. The European Union (Germany took over the presidency of the EU on Jan. 1) didn't hesitate to put forward critical questions in connection with Olmert's remarkable confession — or was it a slip of the tongue? Yet the commotion didn't cast a shadow worth mentioning over German-Israeli relations, which have been very staunch for more than four decades.

Everybody knows what the underlying factor is: the Holocaust. The feeling of bearing an eternal, moral responsibility for the barbaric atrocities that were committed against German and European Jews by the Nazi regime is still widespread in Germany, among politicians and among citizens. "It is our history. We have no other. And responsibility for Auschwitz, for the genocide against German and European Jews, that horrific crime against humanity, is forever part of our history," said German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, in a speech at Haifa University in May 2002. Dissidents like historian Ernst Nolte, who linked the rise of Nazism to a general fear of the expansion of Communism and ascertained a fatal correlation (kausaler nexus) between Auschwitz and the Gulag, have encountered massive criticism. Only the new states in Germany's east are still making up the arrears — the then German Democratic Republic (East Germany) confirmed itself to the anti-Israel course of the Soviet Union and repeatedly stated that the Federal Republic (West Germany) was the successor to Hitler's Third Reich.

Already in the 1950's, West Germany was striving after a wiedergutmachung, (reconciliation) with the Jewish state. This was partially inspired by calculating realpolitik: support of Israel coincided with the policy of the United States, an indispensable ally during the Cold War. Then Chancellor Konrad Adenauer — neither a Nazi nor a resistance hero, as his biographer Henning Köhler pointed out — maintained good personal relations with Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion. By signing the Luxemburg Agreement in September 1952, the government in Bonn committed itself to paying a compensation of three billion deutsche marks to those who survived the Shoah. Although West Germany and Israel did not establish diplomatic ties until May 12, 1965, there had already been all kinds of vivid contacts on an unofficial level in practice, especially regarding scientific and military cooperation. Adenauer's successors wouldn't deviate from this policy. In December 1994, Israel was assigned a special economic status by the European Union at the instance of Adenauer's "political grandson" Helmut Kohl.

However, Bonn (Berlin, after 1999) has never been in a position to conduct a one-dimensional pro-Israel policy. Arab leaders such as Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser made it clear to the Federal Republic at an early stage that an unlimited supply of weapons to Israel (which was encouraged by Washington) could entail negative diplomatic and economic consequences. Chancellor Ludwig Erhard, Adenauer's successor, felt obliged to suspend arms deliveries after Nasser invited Walter Ulbricht, the leader of the rivaling German Democratic Republic, for a visit to Egypt. The visit took place in February 1965, whereupon an outraged Erhard entered into full-fledged relations with Israel. Most Arab nations then severed relations with Bonn (though these were restored again in May 1972).

This example shows that successive chancellors were forced to operate in a very discrete and tactful way. On the one hand, they didn't want to leave Israel in the lurch for historical-principle reasons — this would also have caused major suspicion in the United States and (Western) Europe. On the other hand, they didn't want to alienate the Arab world either because of its increasing dependence on the import of oil from the Middle East and its lucrative business contracts — ironically, it mainly concerned the sale of weapons.

From the early 1970's on, Chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt gradually corrected West Germany's Middle East policy. It was given a more balanced character, which cannot be seen separately from the spirit of the time; the 68er (generation of 1968) took a more critical stand toward Israel and displayed affinity with the fate of the Palestinians. West German prudence was illustrated by the country's voting behavior in the United Nations General Assembly on Nov. 22, 1974. That day, the assembly dealt with Resolution 2636, on the right to self-determination of the Palestinians and on authorizing the United Nations to pick up contacts with the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) on an official scale. The West German representative abstained, the motivation being that Bonn underwrote both the Palestinians' right to self-determination and Israel's right of existence.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States, and the war in Iraq provided Germany's delicate balancing act in the Middle East with a new context. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his Red-Green coalition mapped out a more assertive foreign policy, displaying the wish to behave in a less docile way toward Washington and Brussels. Germany's national interest would henceforth be the sacred premise. Schröder and his Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, intensified relations with the leading Muslim nations and expressed their intention to forestall a "clash of civilizations" between the West and Islam, gradually constituting themselves as bridge-builders. Both politicians could count on a lot of goodwill in the Arab world because of their resistance to America's attack on Iraq and the prominent part Germany played in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Schröder, often classified as genosse der bosse (comrade of the bosses) didn't hesitate to use this goodwill to purchase orders for German businesses — in 2003 and 2005, he went on tour in the Persian Gulf region, escorted by a legion of captains of industry.

At the same time, Foreign Minister Fischer looked after the ties with Israel in a careful way. In his 2005 book Die Rückkehr der Geschichte (The Return of History), Fischer explicitly encouraged the EU member states to recognize Israel's right of existence unconditionally, calling the country "the only real democracy and modern, freedom-based society in the Middle East." Schröder elaborated on the policy of Brandt and Schmidt; Fischer operated in accordance with the principles of Adenauer and Kohl.

Their successors, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, haven't deviated from this self-conscious course, be it that Schröder's often blunt and provocative style has vanished. Merkel, Adenauer's "political great-granddaughter," has become Israel's most important referee in Germany and in Europe, while Steinmeier, a former advisor to Schröder, pays more attention to Arab sensitivities. This was also the division of labor during the Lebanon crisis and its aftermath. Merkel expressed solidarity with Israel: "Hezbollah has shelled Israel for months and has abducted Israeli soldiers. Hezbollah denies Israel's right to exist. It is a historical obligation of German politics to defend Israel's right to exist unconditionally," she said in an interview in July. Steinmeier, for his part, is seen as one of the architects behind the idea of normalization of Western relations with Syria (he paid a visit to Damascus on Dec. 4).

Now that Germany has relieved "pro-Arabic" Finland as EU president, it will have to apply its skills as a diplomatic equilibrist in the Middle East on behalf of the EU as a whole. It could be argued that to a certain extent, Germany had already been maneuvered into this role before Jan. 1. Under Prime Minister Tony Blair, Britain has moved in a pro-Israeli direction and has lost much of its credibility in the Arab world. France cherishes its historically strong ties with former colonies like Algeria and Syria (and Lebanon) and other Muslim nations. This automatically leaves detached Germany in the position of honest broker.

Merkel and Steinmeier are aware of the fact that only a Europe that is speaking with one voice will be able to exert influence in the Middle East. Yet the divisions within the ranks of the EU that drifted to the surface during the crisis in Lebanon and the fragile character of the EU's Common Foreign and Defense Policy as such (witness Iraq in 2003) hardly justify optimism. Apart from that, Germany will be occupied with other crucial issues as well in the months to come — 2007 kicked off with yet another energy dispute between Russia and a former satellite state.

Germany — rightly — has attained the reputation of being a reliable partner, in Israel and in the neighboring Arab countries. But that other dream of Chancellor Adenauer and his successors — a united Europe, economically and politically — is far from being realized.

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