West Germany, Israel: elusive normality

TWO days after President Reagan's perplexing visit to the cemetery at Bitburg, West Germany's able ambassador to Israel, Niels Hansen, attended ceremonies at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial marking the 40th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. Ambassador Hansen's presence was a needed counteraction to shocks produced here by the Bitburg episode. His stated hope that the affair would produce no lasting damage to relations between Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany is widely shared among officials of both countries.

Those relations cannot be understood simply in terms of normal diplomacy, although achieving normal diplomacy has been a cherished ambition of both German and Israeli leaders, given the terrible and abnormal circumstances that preceded establishment of the two states.

For the Federal Republic of Germany, good and confident relations with Israel were a ticket to respectability among the Western states, a symbol of the new Germany and its fresh democratic roots.

For Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, diplomatic ties with Bonn were, as Prof. Shlomo Aronson of Hebrew University explains, ``a sign that Israel was a state like other states with a rational foreign policy which sought support from other nations and which could subordinate popular emotion to the demands of Realpolitik.''

Both countries recognized the need for a network of interpersonal and community relationships, an infrastructure for their bilateral dealings. More than 50 Israeli cities, for example, today maintain special contact with ``sister cities'' inside West Germany.

Every Israeli university has a cooperative arrangement -- joint departments, student and faculty exchanges -- with at least one West German counterpart.

Cultural, scientific, and youth exchange programs are conducted on a scale appropriate to a nation many times the size of Israel.

At many an Israeli collective farm, survivors of the Holocaust have played host to generation after generation of young Germans eager to share at least briefly in the ``kibbutz experience,'' an experience, incidentally, which only about 3 percent of Israelis themselves now choose.

But from the outset, the shadow of the Holocaust has darkened the view of many Israelis toward Germans, complicating state-to-state relations, testing the mettle of German and Israeli leaders alike.

Ben-Gurion and his equally distinguished German counterpart, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, knew the stakes were high when, in 1952, they agreed to negotiate German reparations both to Israel and to surviving Jewish victims of Nazism in Europe.

Technically the payments, which over the years would pump an estimated $33 billion into the Israeli economy, were to offset the costs of settling refugees and to compensate individuals who had lost property as the Nazis swept Europe.

To skeptical countrymen who believed it an act of moral squalor to accept money from the remnants of Hitler's generation, Ben-Gurion argued that those who had sought to destroy world Jewry should not by their deeds become the inheritors of Jewish wealth.

That did not satisfy a young Knesset member named Menachem Begin, who whipped 15,000 protesters into a state of bitter frenzy over Ben-Gurion's ``blood money.'' Rioters stormed the Knesset, hurling rocks and swinging fists. Legislators were injured.

Implored to call off the session and postpone the vote authorizing the talks, Ben-Gurion replied, ``If I do, we shall today kill parliamentary democracy in Israel.'' The vote was held and Ben-Gurion prevailed, many legislators having spent the night preceding the vote in reflection and prayer.

Before signing the reparations accord, Adenauer -- a devout Roman Catholic who believed deeply in penitence as redemption for sin -- also prayed.

The reparations battle was the first of many tests for the new relationship.

Bonn, for example, feared that the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann would unleash a worldwide wave of anti-German sentiment.

Sensitive to the danger, Israeli authorities stressed that they were exposing the crimes of a regime and its accomplices -- including those who joined in a conspiracy of silence -- but would not replace Nazi racism with a doctrine of hereditary guilt. In fact, Eichmann's trial opened the mouths of victims and the eyes of mankind to the full dimensions of the Holocaust after both had long been closed.

About a year later, Israeli intelligence learned that a group of German rocket experts had been recruited into a threatening Egyptian program by a Cairo agent residing in Zurich. Initial West German reluctance to interfere in the matter was overcome just as tempers and emotions threatened to get out of hand, Bonn eventually ``inviting'' most of those involved to return home.

The establishment of formal ties had been delayed by an Arab threat to recognize East Germany, triggering at the time an automatic severance of relations by Bonn. But in 1965, the exposure of secret tank deliveries from West Germany to Israel brought Egypt and other important Arab states to the brink of relations with East Germany.

The threat backfired. Although Bonn formally discontinued the tank transfer, deliveries were continued by the United States with Bonn picking up the tab. With little to lose diplomatically, West Germany dispatched its first ambassador, Dr. Ralph Pauls, to Tel Aviv. Dr. Pauls braved riotous demonstrations protesting his arrival to begin an exceedingly useful assignment.

Adenauer and successors Willy Brandt and Helmut Kohl have all visited Israel, Mr. Kohl's 1984 trip being the least successful of the three. The current chancellor struck most Israelis as more provincial than his predecessors.

An unfortunate disclaimer of responsibility for the Holocaust, in which Kohl referred to his relative youth during the war, offended Israelis. Kohl's extension of the Bitburg invitation to President Reagan tended to confirm a judgment many here had already reached regarding his political depth.

The subject of Hitler's Germany remains one of profound fascination for Israeli scholars today. In a country where hundreds of thousands poured into the streets to protest the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, the search for answers to the question of how tens of millions became accessories to the greatest crimes in human history goes on.

The notion that some dark strain exists in German cultural or intellectual tradition is rarely far from thought here. It is perhaps for that reason that German public figures are today held to standards far more exacting than those applied to other members of the European Community.

Helmut Schmidt's proposed tank sale to Saudi Arabia drew at the time a vicious rebuke from Prime Minister Begin, and while Kohl has endorsed the sale, it has not yet been consummated. German expressions of public support for a Palestinian state bring especially sharp retort here from those sensitive to any German word or deed that might in any way threaten Israeli security.

Even the statements of visiting Bundestag members of West Germany's Green Party, condemning Israel's occupation of south Lebanon -- views shared by many Israelis -- infuriated those who see in the Greens the kind of ideological German extremism which itself provokes dread among many Jews.

Careful statements from both countries show leaders understand this attitude and its causes and work to build upon what remains an astonishingly good relationship. But no one yet suggests that relations between the two countries are ``normal.'' That, perhaps, is a target appropriate for future generations.

C. Robert Zelnick is the chief ABC News correspondent in Tel Aviv.

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