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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region
Germany and Israel: Truth and Promises

Germany and Israel: Truth and Promises

Volker Beck

Political relations between the Jewish State of Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany will always have aspects that transcend normal foreign relationships.

The Federal Republic of Germany is identical with the “Deutsche Reich” of the past as a subject of international law. This is the legal standpoint, as well, of the Federal Constitutional Court1 of the German Federal Government.2 It has legal and political consequences. As former German President Joachim Gauck said: “One thing is absolutely clear: our normal relations are to remain forever special. Israel and Germany are inextricably linked by the memory of the Shoah. We Germans are aware of our moral obligation to the Jewish people and the State of Israel, and we will not let this awareness fade.”3

So far, so good. In official speeches, Germany is a champion of friendship between Germany and Israel. But often there is a lack of concrete steps to match the high standards of ceremonial speeches. German-Israeli relations started in 1952 with the Luxemburg Treaty. This treaty was of mutual interest. The Federal Republic sought international recognition and acceptance, and Israel needed support for the double challenge of developing the new state with its economy and the military with its hostile environment. As the consequence of the developing relations established in the Luxemburg Treaty, Israel received military aid from Germany, which was guaranteed in a further informal agreement.4 The obligation is still vital today: Israel ordered several advanced submarines for its defense, especially against the Iranian threat. Israeli military demands are financially subsidized by the German federal budget.5 Chancellor Angela Merkel made her position very clear in her speech to the Knesset in 2008 when she defined “Germany’s special historical responsibility for Israel’s security. This historical responsibility is part of my country’s raison d’être.”6

Israel’s modern submarine
Israel’s modern submarines are made in Germany. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

I would say that her conviction never changed, but in the current environment and the administration of the Foreign Ministry, you will also find a very different attitude today.

Eroding Public Opinion

After World War II, German-Israeli relations were a project of the political elite in Germany to help Germany integrate into the family of nations despite its horrible and criminal past. Relations with the nation-state of the Jewish people were an indispensable tool for this purpose. Likewise, the younger generation within the German civil society of that era took up the question of the German responsibility for the Shoah. The Deutsche-Israelische Gesellschaft and the Gesellschaft für christlich-jüdische Zusammenarbeit, two concrete non-partisan projects, were motivated by this approach of responsibility.

Today, 77 percent of the German population believes history should be put to rest; the younger generation today supports this idea even more strongly.7 About half of the German population does not want the German government to endorse Israel’s position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More than two-thirds of the population oppose German weapon supplies to Israel, Germany’s only concrete action to defend Israel’s existence.8 Whereas classical anti-Semitism in Germany is declining among the younger generation, negative attitudes toward Israel are slightly higher.9

In the 21st century Germany, responsibility for the past is no longer a popular central motif motivating good relations between Israel and Germany.

As the aspect of responsibility for the past loses importance, the image of Israel’s role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict weakens the support for Israel’s security among the German public.

  • The public is not well informed about the history and presence of Israel. More and more, a narrative has taken over that decontextualized the conflict between Israel and the Arab-Palestinian neighbors. In the mind of the many, the history started with the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Forgotten are the War of Independence against the attacking Arab countries that denied the Jewish people their own state, the Arab aggression before the conquest of the Jordanian-occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, as well as the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip.
  • The German media often portrays the actual conflicts between Israel and Gaza or actions in the territories unfairly or absurdly.10 Headlines like: “Israel threatens with self-defense”11 are not uncommon. Often, only the Israeli response to Palestinian attacks finds its way into the headlines.12 By this, Israel is portrayed as the aggressive occupier.
  • Political analysts of the most important German foreign policy think tank Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) tend to focus only on EU pressure on Israel. They highlight the settlements in the West Bank and the settlement policy of the Israeli government as the main obstacle for peace.13 The idea of pressure by the European Union on the Palestinian Authority to stop sponsoring directly or indirectly terrorism is mainly out of sight.14
  • Projects of the actual Israeli political coalition, e.g., the NGO law, the discussion about the nation-state bill, or the regularization law, are perceived as shrinking the space of Israel’s civil society or promoting nationalist settler positions, nourishing German doubts about Israel’s willingness to achieve peace. They also discredit Israel’s vital security interests. These problematic projects make the international and German public forget that Israel has always chosen “land for peace” if there is a realistic chance for it, as was done in the Sinai with Egypt, in Lebanon, and in Gaza, even though this has not always met with success. Here, the majority of the Knesset could be clearer about Israel’s identity as a Jewish AND Democratic state15 than it was in this current legislative session.

Holocaust education today is insufficient to fight anti-Semitism and encourage friendly relations between Germany and Israel. Besides countering anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist attitudes, it is crucial to teach the history of the Zionist movement and the founding of the Jewish and democratic state, as well as the history of the conflict between Israel and its neighbors.

We have to stabilize our relations with the perspective of the future, with common values and common interests.

2013–2018 – A Period of Ups and Downs in the Bilateral Relationship

During the last German legislature session, Israel and Germany celebrated 50 years of mutual diplomatic relations. But the same period saw a freezing of bilateral relations – twice. The German government canceled a joint cabinet meeting in May 201716 over Israel’s settlement policy, and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel intentionally sparked a diplomatic scandal during his inaugural visit to Israel as foreign minister.17

For some in Germany, Gabriel’s diplomatic faux pas was the welcome sign of a long-desired change in attitude toward Israel.18 Even before this incident, political analysts of the German foreign policy SWP think tank had speculated about such a welcome development.19

It is evident that in Germany there is a deep – I would not say misunderstanding but – “not understanding” of Israel’s security situation. For Germans, security is mostly about burglary and theft, very rarely about terrorism like the horrific truck terror attack on Breitscheidplatz in Berlin in 2016, and certainly not about war. That security in Israel means survival and defending its existence seems very far away. The ignorance toward this challenge is fueled by a German narrative how a non-aggressive foreign policy could work out for the good.

One of the consequences in Germany after World War II in 1945 was: “Nie Wieder Krieg! [No more war!]” This attitude was best expressed in the German “Entspannungspolitik [policy of détente]” under the slogan “change through rapprochement,” a concept of foreign policy drafted by the foreign policy expert of the Social-Democratic Party, Egon Bahr.20 This concept has deeply influenced German policy concepts of all parties. What worked very well with the Communist East is now often applied also toward Putin, Erdogan, and Iran. The Bahr approach in German foreign policy, as well as a geopolitical situation surrounded by peaceful neighbors, results in a deep lack of understanding of Israel’s situation – both in public as in the political class.

The term “proportionality,” applied so often in Israel’s conflicts, is not perceived as using force most delicately and only as the last remedy, but strictly as a comparison in the number of victims. By this, since its victory in 1967, Israel is seen as the strong giant with nothing to fear. If there is no peace agreement, according to this attitude, it is because of the lack of Israel’s will and not the lack of a responsible and reliable Palestinian leadership and a security framework for the implementation of any achievable agreement.

After the disastrous diplomatic developments of 2017, Germany’s new foreign minister, Heiko Maas, showed a different attitude than his predecessor. Stating that he entered politics because of Auschwitz, Heiko Maas denies the gestures of Gabriel teaching Israel the definition of democracy. Maas goes back to the fundaments of German-Israeli relations as a reflection of responsibility for the past.

The future will tell if Maas will take over the Foreign Ministry or the ministry will take over him. Statements this summer on Iran show no change until now on subjects where Israel’s security is concerned. On the Iran issue, Maas seeks to defend the existing JCPOA agreement without challenging Iran on Hizbullah and its armament program.21 He even warned on Twitter22 that a regime change in Iran would bring “radical and fundamentalist forces” to power.

Germany Could Do More than It Is Doing

1. We should advocate for fair treatment of Israel in international bodies. The German government does not need to love Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israel’s current government. As our countries are both diverse democracies, we can continue to discuss issues like Heimatministerium,23 the nation-state bill, or others in a non-confrontational way. Despite these controversies, we should respect the Israeli government as democratically elected and stand up when Israel is singled out in international forums: in the UN Human Rights Council, UNESCO, ECOSOC,24 the General Assembly of the United Nations, and elsewhere.

Recently, on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s existence, Germany failed to endorse Israel’s pursuit of a seat on the UN Security Council and favored its own ambitions instead. A good friend would ask why Israel, as the only democracy in the Middle East, was never a member of the Security Council while Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan were – some of them even several times. Germany should seek another chance to fight for Israel to serve for a term on the Security Council or at least in another UN body. Success in this question would create normality in the United Nations and thereby endorse Israel’s very existence.25

2. We should stop Palestinian terror incitement. Germany is always very outspoken about its legal standpoint on the Israeli settlement issue, which, by the way, is in accord with the positions of UN bodies and the European Union. But international law is also very clear if it comes to terrorism and incitement to violence.26

The European Union27 and Germany28 pay a huge share to the budget of the Palestinian Authority. According to Israel’s prime minister, the Palestinian Authority pays $350 million to terrorists and their families.29 The Palestinian Authority and the PLO have two pension systems for endorsing prisoners and the surviving relatives of so-called martyrs.30 And this is an incitement to terrorism. The German government excuses itself in arguing they do not directly fund those terror pension systems. But it is evident that only because of foreign aid, the Palestinian Authority has the financial flexibility to act like this. Stopping this terror financing system31 should at least be a condition for future payments from the budget of Germany, as well as from the budget of the European Union.

3. We should engage more actively against the Iranian threat to Israel. If Germany wants to remain within the E3’s nuclear agreement with Iran, it should at least try to address the problem of the Iranian missile program and the Hizbullah issue. Being a friend of Israel and declaring its security as a German raison d’état, Germany cannot close its eyes any longer in the face of this existential threat to Israel’s existence.

4. In the European Union, we should lobby for labeling all goods of occupied and disputed territories or none. According to the legal standpoint of the German government and European Union, the territories outside the 1967 borders controlled by Israel are occupied territories. Even if their status is unclear because they were occupied before by Jordan or controlled by Egypt, international law forbids the settling of citizens of the occupying power in such territories. In trade, there must be a differentiation between goods of the states and the territories they control. The European Union, therefore, asked for labeling products of the territories differently from the products from the State of Israel. However, there are other unresolved conflicts like this, such as the Kingdom of Morocco and Western Sahara. In none of these conflicts has the European Union demanded the labeling of the products of the occupied entities. Therefore, if the European Union is applying international law, then it should be done for all comparable cases. If it is only demanded from Israel, the Jewish and democratic state, then it is anti-Semitic, and Germany should put a stop to it.

* * *


  1. The Federal Constitutional Court has stated in settled case-law that the subject of international law “German Reich” has not perished and that the Federal Republic of Germany is not its legal successor, but identical with it as a subject of international law (BVerfGE 36, pp. 1, 16, see also BVerfGE 77, pp. 137, 155).
  2. Bundestagsdrucksache 18/5178 15.06.2015 p. 4; Bundestagsdrucksache 18/4076 20. 02. 2015, p. 10.
  3. Speech of Federal President Joachim Gauck at the state banquet on the occasion of the visit by President Reuven Rivlin of Israel. Berlin, Schloss Bellevue, 11 May 2015.;jsessionid=323B2FA697ECC28BC7380EDEE88619C8.2_cid362?__blob=publicationFile
  4. Rainer Blasius, “Das längst fällige Bekenntnis,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, February 01, 2005.
  5. The latest submarine demand is subsidized with €540 billion. The corruption suspicion against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is endangering the acceptance of this military supply framework in the German political class.

    “Germany okays deal to sell nuke-capable submarines to Israel,” The Times of Israel, June 30, 2017.

    Cecilia Reibele, “Umstrittenes U-Boot-Geschäft mit Israel,” MDR, January 15, 2018.

  6. Speech by Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel to the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 18, 2008 in German:
  7. Bertelsmann Stiftung: Deutschland und Israel heute Verbindende Vergangenheit, trennende Gegenwart? Gütersloh,2015, pp. 22, 26.
  8. Ibidem, p. 68.
  9. Ibidem, p. 41 .
  10. Christian Meier: Terroranschläge in Israel und “halbe Wahrheiten”, Die Welt, November 28, 2017.
  11. Irans Atomwaffen: Israel droht mit Selbstverteidigung – FOCUS Online, 22.01.2006
  12. Georg Hafner, Esther Schapira, “Medien und Israel – Es ist kompliziert,” Jüdische Allgemeine, January 4, 2018.
  13. They are not: Ori Mark showed that the settlements are not a main obstacle to peace. Ori Mark: How Many Settlers Need to Be Evacuated to Make Way for a Palestinian State, Haaretz, 18. 8.2018.
  14. Muriel Asseburg, “Die Palästinensische Autonomiebehörde und die Hamas-Regierung: Erfüllungsgehilfen der Besatzung?” p. 45; René Wildangel, “Die Europäische Union und der israelisch-palästinensische Konflikt: Von der Deklaration zur Aktion?” pp. 63–65, in: Peter Lintl (Hg.), Akteure des israelisch-palästinensischen Konflikts Interessen, Narrative und die Wechselwirkungen der Besatzung. Studie Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP). (Deutsches Institut für Internationale Politik und Sicherheit. Berlin, 2018).
  15. A good example for a clear position: Tzipi Livni, “There’s a Reason the Opposition Didn’t Attend the Nation-state Protest.” Haaretz, August 17, 2018.
  16. JTA: Angela Merkel cancels joint Cabinet meeting with Israel. February 14, 2017.
  17. Alan Posener, “Besuch in Israel. Sigmar Gabriel hat als Diplomat versagt,” Die Welt, April 26, 2017.
  18. Martin Reh, “Das Ende der Leisetreterei. die tageszeitung,” Die Tageszeitung, April 25, 2017.!5399964/
  19. Asseburg M., Busse J., “Deutschlands Politik gegenüber Israel,” pp. 709–712. In: Jäger T., Höse A., Oppermann K. (eds), Deutsche Außenpolitik, (VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2011), pp. 693–716.
  20. Egon Bahr, “Wandel durch Annäherung,” Rede in der Evangelischen Akademie Tutzing [Tutzinger Rede], July 15, 1963.
  21. Federica Mogherini und der E3-Außenminister Jean-Yves Le Drian (Frankreich), Heiko Maas (Deutschland) und Jeremy Hunt (Großbritannien), Gemeinsame Erklärung der E3/EU zur Wiedereinführung von US-Iran-Sanktionen (Auswärtiges Amt, Berlin, August 6, 2018).‌2124462
  22. Heiko Maas on Twitter: “Wer sich einen ‘regime change’ in Iran erhofft, darf nicht vergessen, dass was immer auch folgt, uns viel größere Probleme bereiten könnte. Eine Isolierung könnte gerade den radikalen und fundamentalistischen Kräften Auftrieb geben, was die Region noch mehr destabilisieren würde.” August 9, 2018.
  23. The official translation of the name “Bundesministerium des Innern, für Bau und Heimat” is: “Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community,” despite Heimat meaning home or homeland and not community.
  24. A question of the author to the press department of the German Foreign Ministry why Germany abstained in the voting on an Israeli motion of ECOSOC on the release of Israeli captives in Gaza was answered by the minister himself (August 12, 2018). He claims that unity of the EU vote and to avoid a text of the motion which was even more against Israel’s interest were the motives of the German acting in ECOSOC. He describes this as a general German strategy in such cases. See: Tovah Lazaroff, “UN Body refuses to urge Hamas to release Israeli captives in Gaza,” Jerusalem Post, July 26, 2018.
  25. Volker Beck, “Wie Deutschland seine Freundschaft zu Israel zeigen kann, Berlin,” Die Tagesspiegel, April 19, 2018.

    Vereinte Nationen, “Israels Rückzug ermöglicht Wahl Deutschlands in UN-Sicherheitsrat,” Die Zeit, May 5, 2018.

  26. Also in UNSCR 2334 it is laid down: “6. Calls for immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, as well as all acts of provocation and destruction, calls for accountability in this regard, and calls for compliance with obligations under international law for the strengthening of ongoing efforts to combat terrorism, including through existing security coordination, and to clearly condemn all acts of terrorism;” United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 (2016) p.2
  27. According EC the EU paid to the Palestinians in 2017 about €359 million. European Commission – Press release: New assistance package for Palestine: EU strongly committed to support socio-economic revival of East-Jerusalem. Brussels, January 31, 2018.
  28. According to the German Foreign Ministry Germany gave in 2017 another €133.5 million. Auswärtiges Amt Hilfe für Palästina.
  29. Glenn Kessler, “Does the Palestinian Authority pay $350 million a year to ‘terrorists and their families?’” Washington Post, March 14, 2018.
  30. According to Mena-watch €134 million were paid to families of martyrs in 2017. “Sieben Prozent des palästinensischen Haushalts gehen in Terrorrenten,” Mena-watch, Wien, January 13, 2018.
  31. Sozialhilfe für Gewalt und Terror? Die Zahlungen der Palästinensischen Autonomiebehörde an palästinensische Häftlinge und sogenannte Märtyrerfamilien 2017. (Mideast Freedom Forum Berlin, Berlin, 2018).
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