Merkel meets Netanyahu as Israel and Germany hit rocky patch

Germany's abstention from the UN vote on the status of the Palestinian Authority angered Israel and raised questions about whether Germany's once almost unconditional support is changing.

Michael Sohn/AP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomes the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, in front of the chancellery in Berlin, Thursday, Dec. 6. It was supposed to be an amicable meeting between close friends. Instead, Netanyahu's visit to Germany has been soured by Berlin's refusal to oppose a Palestinian UN statehood bid and anger throughout Europe over Israeli plans to expand settlements around Jerusalem.

With German-Israeli relations unusually tense, Chancellor Angela Merkel is scrambling today in an apparent effort to assure Israel that the two are still friends as usual.

When Germany abstained in last week’s vote to change the Palestinian Authority's status at the United Nations to a non-member observer state, rather than vote against it, Israel took it poorly.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained about Germany’s “lack of consistency” toward the Middle East peace process and attacked Chancellor Merkel personally: “I am disappointed in her,” he told German newspaper Die Welt before he went to meet the chancellor for dinner on Wednesday.

“Israel’s security is part of Germany’s raison d’etre,” said Merkel today. 

Taking responsibility for the Holocaust has turned Germany into one of the strongest allies of the Jewish state, next to the United States.

But the German public seems to be saying it is not so sure it wants to support Israel as unconditionally as it has in the past. Any criticism, perceived or intended, from Germany is a big deal, as Berlin has solidly backed Israel in recent decades, leaving observers wondering if that support is changing now.

Even though it is not officially confirmed, Germany’s UN vote is widely seen here as a reaction to Israel’s latest settlement announcement, which the Germans got wind of early.

“Israel has undermined the trust in its willingness to negotiate,” government spokesman Steffen Seibert said of the settlement plans, adding that they led to the “further shrinking of the geographical space for a future Palestinian state which has to be the basic requirement for a two state solution.”

Emerging from the German-Israeli government consultations today, a regular meeting of both cabinets, Merkel and Netanyahu were keen to stress the good state of relationships at all levels between the two countries.

“Thank you, Angela, for the warm welcome,” said Netanyahu.

“What a pleasure it is that we can communicate in this way today, given our history,” said Merkel. And the settlement issue? Quickly dealt with for reporters: “We agreed to disagree.”

'Surprised and hurt'

Germany is not only one of Israel’s most important trade partners, it also provides arms and military equipment at very generous terms, such as submarines specifically developed for the Israeli Navy and capable of launching missiles with nuclear warheads.

“Israel has got used to unconditional support from Germany,” says Avi Primor, Israeli ambassador to Germany between 1993 and 1999. “So it was surprised and hurt by the official criticism.”

But the chemistry between Merkel and Netanyahu has deteriorated over the past months, according to Mr. Primor, and Merkel needs to reconsider her support for Israel against a backdrop of critical German public opinion toward Israel’s role in the Middle East.

“I think Germans are losing patience with our settlement policy and our treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. It’s a factor the German government can’t ignore,” says Primor.

This would not translate into an immediate policy change on the German side. But if after the Israeli elections in January the new government continues a confrontational course toward the Palestinians, there is a possibility that Germany might actually join the chorus of rather strong critics within the European Union, Primor believes.

Earlier this year, German pollster Forsa published a study showing that 70 percent of Germans thought Israel was behaving recklessly and without taking the interests of its neighbors into consideration, 59 percent called Israel “aggressive.” Both figures had risen by about 10 percentage points in comparison with a similar study carried out in 2009.

Observers like Martin Kloke, a Berlin-based specialist on German-Israeli relations and author of “Israel and the German Left – The History of a Difficult Relationship,” think the reasons for this development are found not so much in Israel’s policy, but in a German desire to rewrite history.

“On the surface it is often ignorance,” Mr. Kloke says. “People see the pictures of Gaza being turned to rubble by Israeli helicopter gunships, and they side with what they perceive as the underdog in this uneven fight.”

But in Kloke’s eyes the coverage of the conflict already betrays a bias in the German media, which hardly covered the week-long rocket attacks by Hamas on Israeli communities.

And that bias is the reflection of a sentiment in wider German society, says Kloke. “Every Palestinian killed by Israeli shells minimizes German guilt. German protest against the mistreatment of Palestinians is not about the Palestinians really, it is about showing that the Israelis aren’t so different from our Nazi grandfathers,” says Kloke.

The government and the political elites in Germany are well aware of the risk that any criticism of Israel can be misused. This is why such criticism from officials  is very rare, says Kloke. “But sometimes the Israelis make it quite difficult for Merkel.”

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