Rumors of German-Israeli nuclear missile deal pique debate on 'special relationship'

German leaders have always made support for Israel's security a part of their foreign policy, but as the Holocaust recedes into the past, fewer Germans agree.

Lior Mizrahi/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, shakes hands with German President Joachim Gauck during a meeting in his Jerusalem office, Wednesday, May 30. During Gauck's visit last week he spoke about the 'special relationship' between the two countries.

"Special Relationship" is a term used to describe the relations between Great Britain and the US, but if ever there were two countries linked by historical events of unparalleled magnitude, it is Germany and Israel. The Holocaust has defined the relationship between the country of the perpetrators and the country of the victims, so much so that German Chancellor Angela Merkel frequently calls the security of the Jewish state Germany’s responsibility, its “raison d’etre” even.

But not all Germans agree, and the decisions Mrs. Merkel makes based on that "special relationship" stir growing unease among many Germans.

This week Der Spiegel magazine ran a cover story about German submarines being sold to Israel. The article quotes several former members of the German defense ministry alleging that Israel is arming these submarines, delivered at very generous terms, with nuclear cruise missiles and that the German government has been aware of this modification for quite some time.

Neither German nor Israeli officials have commented on the story, but experts see it as an open secret. The fact that Berlin is not even denying it has led the political opposition and commentators to re-open the debate on the character of German-Israeli relations. 

“The submarines are a vital addition to our national security,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told German tabloid Bild in an interview on June 5. “They are an affirmation of Germany’s commitment to Israel’s security.” 

“Of course the German government never asked what would happen to these subs,” says Karsten Voigt, a former Social Democrat member of parliament and government coordinator for US-German relations. “The worst thing would have been if the Israelis had said the truth – any German government would have had a hard time defending itself.” 

There is no lack of critics. Günter Grass, a Nobel-Prize-winning German author, found himself at the center of an international scandal when he published a poem a few weeks ago in which he defended Iran against the threat of a military strike by Israel and asked the – rhetorical – question of whether Germany should be part of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

“I’m speaking out,” Mr. Grass said in his poem, “because my country, scene of crimes beyond comparison, under the pretext of penitence is sending Israel another submarine, which can direct all-destructive warheads toward an area in which not a single nuclear bomb as been proven to exist.” 

The poem drew condemnation around the globe, notably in Israel, where Grass was declared persona non-grata. In Germany it rekindled the debate on whether criticism of Israel was equivalent to anti-Semitism or a liberation from the decades of guilt. 

A majority of the political class will side with the official government line, albeit with less emphasis than the chancellor. On a state visit to Israel last week, President Joachim Gauck spoke about the relationship, although his declaration of commitment wasn't quite as strong. “Advocacy for Israel's security and right to exist is a defining part of German policy,” he said. 

But a poll conducted by the respected Forsa institute just before the visit indicated rising German unease with Israeli government policy. According to the poll, 60 percent of Germans believe that their country has no special responsibility toward Israel because of the Holocaust; only 33 percent said it does. On top of that, the poll indicated that 70 percent of Germans believe Israel pursues its interests without consideration for other peoples. In a similar poll three years ago, only 59 percent were of that opinion. Similarly, the percentage of those who perceive Israel as "aggressive" has risen from 49 to 59 percent. 

Thilo Sarazzin, a former director of the German central bank, now a controversial bestselling author, picks up the theme of Holocaust guilt driving German policy in his new book “Europe does not need the euro.” In his view, German willingness to support the common currency and its weaker member states results from guilt. 

According to Sarrazin, those advocating eurobonds – collectivized debt guaranteed by the whole eurozone – are “driven by the very German reflex to believe that atonement for the Holocaust and World War II can only be achieved by handing over all our interests, including our money, into European hands.”

To be fair, Germany does not blindly support Israel in all its endeavors. Merkel last year irritated Netanyahu by criticizing Israel’s settlement policy. Germany is the biggest Western investor in the Palestinian territories. There is a lot of sympathy for the Palestinian cause, particularly in Germany’s political left. The Social Democrats (SPD), Germany’s main opposition party, accuse Merkel of failing to pressure the Israelis to honor a certain part of the deal –  according to them the delivery of German submarines was tied to Israeli concessions over the settlements.  

“The chancellor has missed the opportunity to persuade Israel’s government to change their view on the settlement issue,” says SPD foreign affairs spokesman Rolf Mützenich.

But the criticism from the left is rather mild. After all, all post-war German governments subscribed to the special responsibility towards Israel. It was Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, Merkel’s predecessor in the chancellery, who in 2002 said: “Whatever the Israelis need to protect themselves, we’ll give it to them.”

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