Jacob Heilbrunn

Is Israel Losing Germany?

For decades the true special relationship has been between Germany and Israel. After World War II relations were slowly established between the two countries. Israel looked warily at the author of World War II and the Holocaust, while West Germany sought to establish ties with the Jewish state to demonstrate that it was becoming a solid and dependable democracy. German chancellor Konrad Adenauer negotiated a restitution agreement with Israel and visited it in retirement in 1966. Since then, successive German chancellors have worked to improve ties with Israel. Indeed, the current German chancellor Angela Merkel has been very much in the Adenauer vein. She has steadfastly defended Israel publicly and sold it submarines, which Israel is outfitting with nuclear missiles. She also voted against accepting the Palestinians into UNESCO last year.

But as the weekly Der Spiegel reports, she is no longer adhering to that tough line because of her exasperation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is antagonizing Merkel and injuring the close ties between Bonn and Jerusalem. The source of the tension is the issue of the United Nations non-member observer status for the Palestinians, which they won overwhelmingly in November. Initially, Netanyahu counted on Merkel to stop the major European countries from assenting to the resolution. But then it became clear that this would not succeed. So the Israelis asked Merkel to switch tactics: they wanted Germany to push for a general abstention. But as Der Spiegel notes, 

the Israeli change of heart arrived too late. In the meantime, the governments of a majority of EU states, including France's, had decided to back the Palestinians. There was not going to be any across-the-board abstention from EU countries.

What happened next enraged Merkel. The Israelis insisted that Berlin now vote no on the resolution. Merkel refused. She was miffed that Israel saw Germany's vote as a bargaining chip that it could dispose of at it pleased. At the UN, Germany did not vote no. Instead, it abstained.

Germany is increasingly irked by the adamant refusal of Netanyahu to engage in serious engotiations with the Palestinians. Merkel is influenced by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's insistence that Israel needs to treat with the Palestinian leadership. In addition, former chancellor Helmut Schmidt has openly criticized the sale of submarines to Israel; "I would not have done it." With Netanyahu's decision to proceed, or threaten to proceed, with the E-1 construction of several thousand new settlements east of Jerusalem—a move that would effectively abolish a two-state solution—he is raising diplomatic hackles across Europe.

Nevertheless, Germany is remaining cautious. According to Haaretz,

"We've agreed to disagree over construction in the E-1 area," she said. "But that does not prevent us from agreeing over issues such as security."

Merkel said it was important for both Israelis and Palestinians to refrain from unilateral moves. But on E-1, "Israel has a different opinion, and it is a sovereign state," she said. "We can only express our opinion."

But Merkel's opinions are becoming clear. Netanyahu is nowhere near breaking the relationship between Germany and Israel. But it is fraying. Future chancellors of a Germany that is taking a more independent course in foreign affairs may not be as pro-Israel as Merkel. So Netanyahu is following a perilous path. He should be shoring up Israel's relations abroad. Instead, his true legacy may be that he has further damaged Israel's relations with key allies and isolated it.

Image: Flickr/Maarten van Maanen.