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Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Alexander Arndt on Die deutsch-israelischen Sicherheitsbeziehungen: Vergangenheit, Gegenwart, Zukunft [The German-Israeli security relations: Past, present, future], edited by Milena Uhlmann

Filed under: Europe and Israel, Hizbullah
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 21:1-2 (Spring 2009)

One example may serve to illustrate the ambivalence of some of the issues falling under the term German-Israeli security relations, the title and focus of this recently published anthology. In her widely and highly lauded appearance before the Knesset on 18 March 2008, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed – like so many before her – the “special, unique relationship” between Germany and Israel.[1] Yet the deal struck between Israel and Hizballah in July 2008 with the help of the German intelligence to exchange very much alive terrorists for the bodily remains of kidnapped Israelis soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev revealed – lo and behold! – another “special relationship,” this time between Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, the BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst), and Hizballah, an issue fraught with both diplomatic and domestic ramifications.[2]

In his contribution to the book, “Highlights in the Development of Security Relations Between Israel and Germany,” former Brig. Gen. and Senior Intelligence Officer Ephraim Lapid bestows upon Germany “a place of honor” for its history of mediation between Hizballah and Israel over the last decades. If Goldwasser and Regev were alive, one would find it easier to agree. However, as all of the articles in this important volume make clear, the security relationship between both countries is complicated, messy, contradictory, morally ambiguous, mutually beneficial, and detrimental, but nevertheless not only an interesting topic of study, but of great significance for both countries.

Milena Uhlmann, a young and committed political scientist from Germany, has undertaken the task of assembling a wide array of voices to shed some light on a field which shows a striking lack of in-depth research. With the celebration of Israel’s sixtieth anniversary, its history has found broad international attention. This is especially true in Germany, where one of the most frequently cited topoi (categories) is the shared historical horizon of both countries in the shadow of the Holocaust. It is precisely this historical dimension which provides one of the most challenging and interesting aspects of the German-Israeli security relations which this book presents.

The book, which contains both English and German contributions, is part five of a fairly new series published by the German Academic Association of Security Studies whose purpose is to confront the security challenges of the twenty-first century from the German perspective.

When thirteen authors, Israeli and German experts, try to conquer this new territory, it must be admitted from the start that the effort cannot be comprehensive. One obvious reason is that, when researching the archives, matters of security relations by nature face restrictions. In addition, the Arab-Israeli conflict can hardly be called a thing of the past. It requires the utmost sensitivity.

There is a certain unevenness because the contributions range from the personal to the analytic, from overview to in-depth coverage, from positive appraisal to critical insight. But almost all authors adopt a historical perspective.

Given the vastness of the issue, the editors decided to arrange the articles thematically: 1) Political and Social Framework; 2) Institutional Cooperation; and 3) Technological Cooperation. The issues do not appear always to be clearly delineated, and, unfortunately, there is no index.

To stress a few significant contributions: Daniel Gerlach reveals the intersection of tensions in NATO in general. Specifically, he discusses the friction between Germany and the U.S. during the Yom Kippur War which foreshadowed the transatlantic rift that later appeared with regard to the “War on Terror” that began in 2001. This is picked up by Franz-Joseph Hölters, who presents a perspective on current European-Israeli security relations, their frictions, challenges, and possible future developments. Keren Tamam investigates the difference of perception on both sides regarding weapons deals between Germany and Israel in context of the Holocaust.

The institutional part provides an in-depth account of the uneasy beginnings of the German-Israeli intelligence cooperation by Shlomo Shpiro. Joram Bobasch and Benjamin Cimander present a comparative analysis of security measures in both countries – undertaken by either the state or private security firms – to protect critical infrastructure such as water, traffic, and public buildings. Philipp Stricharz investigates the legal cooperation between Israel and Germany on issues of jurisdiction and prosecution.

When it comes to cooperation in defense and security technology, one has to begin by looking to history. Consequently, three of the four articles here focus on the nexus of technological development and the socio-political framework. David Schiller highlights both the macro and the micro level from the earliest Israeli weapon requirements in the War of Independence to the fact that the famous Israeli Uzi submachine gun helped win over Germany’s then-minister of defense Franz Joseph Strauß. Marcus Mohr uses the question of tank shipments to outline the ambivalent position Germany took in the Cold War, when the Hallstein Doctrine gave priority to Germany’s diplomatic relationships with the Arab world.[3] Yves Pallade throws some light on the diplomatic and technical intricacies of a decade-long secret arms cooperation between Germany and Israel, with the example of the CERBERUS-radar jammer system, in the context of the end of the Cold War.

Official discourse has stressed time and time again that Germany feels morally bound to support Israel due to the legacy of the Shoah. However, of all the arenas of bilateral cooperation, the realm of defense, security, and intelligence may be the one where hardly anything is done for moral reasons or sentimentality, except for the morality dictated by national interest. While ideal notions cannot be neglected, pragmatic aspects are the ones which count.

When the primary goal of Israel was the need to survive in the early years of its existence, post-war West Germany needed to become a member of the Western alliance to face the challenges of the Cold War. Yet even more so, it needed to become fully reintegrated into the international community despite its horrific crimes in the Holocaust and Second World War. Then-German-chancellor Konrad Adenauer understood well that Germany had to do everything to regain the trust of Western democracies, and sovereignty itself. Long before official diplomatic ties were established in 1965, support for the Jewish State served this strategic interest. The Reparation Agreement (Wiedergutmachung) was signed in 1952, and mutual cooperation started soon afterwards, albeit on a clandestine level.

While, mildly put, an uneasiness regarding the historical burden of the Holocaust seemed self-evidently to be an obstacle to a “special relationship” in the first few decades following the war, two issues further severely complicated the establishment of this special relationship. On the macro level, the dynamics of the Cold War impeded a rapprochement. The Hallstein Doctrine made West Germany vulnerable on the diplomatic level. Any ties to Israel had repercussions for its relationship with the Arab world within the wider framework of the East-West conflict.

On the micro level it meant that, especially in the early years, cooperation between the security and intelligence communities required Israelis, at times survivors of the Holocaust, to work with former Nazi criminals and outright anti-Semites. The predecessor of the BND was the semi-private Organisation Gehlen, run by former Wehrmacht-General Reinhard Gehlen and for many former Nazis a “sanctuary…from the post-war de-Nazification process and the war trials.”[4] Gehlen became president of the BND when it was officially founded in 1955. Because of his respect for the Israeli victory in the 1956 Suez campaign, Gehlen developed a strategic interest in the Mossad’s abilities and hoped to benefit from mutual cooperation. Then-Mossad Chief Isser Harel chose to give Israel’s security needs priority over the historical burden, which resulted in freedom of action in Germany – a clear advantage given all the German-Jewish Israelis who were fluent in German – and proved successful in operations against Israel’s enemies in Europe and the Arab world. His realpolitik decision to work “with the devil himself to protect Israel” served as the foundation for a long-standing relationship that grew stronger in the following decades, when many former Nazis were replaced by a new generation in the BND.

However, as with the German BND’s Hizballah ties mentioned above, the moral ambivalence of such issues is apparent.[5] It is for this reason precisely that this volume is valuable. It provides challenging insights into the nature and history of German-Israeli security relations. One can only hope that future publications follow in its footsteps, not shying away from the intricacies, raising critical questions, and keeping an eye on the possible contradictions between word and deed.


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[3]. The German Hallstein Doctrine, named after Walter Hallstein, claimed that only West Germany represented Germany and that, except for the Soviet Union, Germany would not entertain diplomatic relationships with any country that recognized East Germany as a single state. Consequently, Germany needed to avoid an Arab recognition of East Germany which would have forced it to cut all its economic and political ties to the Arab world. Since East Germany could successfully establish ties with the decolonized Third World, this doctrine became increasingly unsustainable and was abandoned in the early 1970s.

[4]. See Shlomo Shpiro’s contribution, “Friends in the Dark: The First Decade of German-Israeli Intelligence Cooperation.”

[5]. The troublesome past of the German intelligence community, as well as personal continuities from the Third Reich to both East and West Germany, cannot be discussed further but remains an area of critical concern. Consequently, a tough debate erupted on a panel discussion in Berlin, held to celebrate the publication of this anthology, when the question of a possible anti-Semitic continuity within the German armed forces was raised.

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Alexander Arndt, M.A., is editor-in-chief of the German JCPA website “Jerusalem Zentrum” and member of the Coordinating Council of German NGOs against Anti-Semitism.