AFTER hitting rock bottom a month ago, official relations between Germany and Israel appear to be improving, in part because Bonn is considerably increasing aid to the Jewish state. There has been a ``favorable change'' in relations, Benjamin Navon, Israeli ambassador to Bonn, said last week.
The low point was reached when Iraqi Scud missiles - which might have carried warheads filled with chemical agents manufactured with German technology - began hitting Israel last month. Once again, Jews felt threatened by German poison gas. This, on top of widespread antiwar demonstrations in Germany and Bonn's slow response in providing more aid for the anti-Iraq coalition, ``put us in a difficult position,'' says a source close to the German Foreign Office. ``In a certain sense, we are on the defensiv e.''
The result was a number of trips by high-level German delegations to Israel to view the Scud damage and express solidarity. Immediate aid of 250 million marks ($163 million) followed, surpassing German-Israeli aid for all of last year. Arrangements were made for medical assistance and delivery of about 1 billion marks in military equipment, such as chemical-sniffing Fox vehicles. The Germans also announced a strengthening of export-control laws.
``My grandmother, who survived Auschwitz, she would never be satisfied, although many Israelis say, `better late than never,''' says Aviv Shir-On, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Bonn.
Germany has tried to pursue a policy of ``balance'' toward the Middle East, in which it treats the Arab world and the Jewish state even-handedly. But because of the historical duty Germany feels toward Israel, the ``policy has never fully worked, and in times of crisis, Germany moves closer to Israel,'' says Helmut Hubel, Middle East specialist at the German Society for Foreign Affairs in Bonn.
Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher tried to restore some semblance of balance to Middle East policy by visiting Egypt, Syria, and Jordan two weeks ago. But the aid he promised to these countries, a total of 400 million marks, does not match the recent outpouring from Bonn to Tel Aviv and additional assistance being negotiated.
A key effect of the Gulf war on German-Israeli relations, says Hubel, is that Israel is now in a position to demand more from Bonn and that Bonn will probably have less room for maneuver on such subjects as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Israel has recently presented Bonn with a formal wish list, says the source close to the German Foreign Office. It includes more German investment and more financial aid; legislation that would make it illegal for German companies to sign contract clauses boycotting business with Israel; a common fund to finance research and development in Israel; and German support for Israel in the European Community (EC).
The last point, says the source, would mean ``that on practically every EC agenda item, Germany would adopt a kind of godfather role and stand up and say that the Israelis have a legitimate concern here.'' Israel, however, already gets quite favorable treatment in the EC, the source says.
It also looks like Israel will be getting two long-coveted German submarines, the source says. In providing the submarines, the Germans will be accommodating in two ways: financially, because they will largely be a gift; politically, because official German policy prohibits export weapons to areas of tension.
Mr. Shir-On says he hopes that the Germans finally recognize that Israel has been right all along on the Middle East: that Iraq was always the worst threat to the region; that shipments of Western weapons to the region were destabilizing; that the PLO has ``disqualified itself'' as a negotiating partner on the Palestinian issue.
``After the war, when there is an opportunity for talks and peace, I think our opinions will be taken more seriously'' by the Germans, Shir-On says.
There is already some evidence of this. Bonn, which has long considered the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians, has undergone a ``nuance'' change in its policy since the PLO sided with Iraq in the Gulf war, says the source close to the Foreign Office.
``The Palestinians themselves have to decide who will represent their interests,'' the source says. This comes closer to Israel's position that it will negotiate with elected Palestinian representatives from the occupied territories, but not with the PLO.
Although official German attitudes toward Israel are warming, recent public opinion polls of the German public suggest a trend in the opposite direction. In a poll published in the S"uddeutsche Zeitung on Jan. 4, Israel, more than any other country, was listed as the state from which Germany should distance itself. West Germans, however, point out that the poll included east Germans, whose government never held itself accountable for the Holocaust.