Tuesday, April 12, 2011

DRIFTING APART - NEW GERMANY AND NETANYAHU'S ISRAEL

The news that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman were in Germany last week was overshadowed in Israel by coverage of Hamas's anti-tank missile attack on a lumbering yellow school bus that left one Israeli youngster fighting for his life.

At the de rigueur joint news conference in Berlin with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Netanyahu described Germany as a "great friend of Israel" saying that the talks had taken place in an atmosphere of mutual trust and friendship. Yet any sober assessment of the German-Israel relationship would reveal that Berlin is no longer Jerusalem's most dependable ally inside the EU. Germans have grown increasingly -- sometimes unreasonably – disenchanted with Israeli policies. As a German friend working in Israel recently told me, "We just don't understand Israelis anymore."

German's bristle at being told they are naïve. Their faith in the two-state solution, and by implication in Mahmoud Abbas's goodwill, is unshakeable. Germany is Europe's biggest financial backer of the Palestinian Authority. For Germans a solution to the Palestinian issue is practically a prerequisite for regional stability and they blame Israel – definitely not the Palestinians – for the current diplomatic stalemate. Germans myopically view settlements as the alpha and omega of conflict: Israel's refusal to peremptorily capitulate on settlements all but justifies Abbas's intransigence.

But the fissures extend to just about every facet of Israeli behavior. While most Israelis have not forgiven Turkey for its role in the Mavi Marmara affair, the Bundestag unanimously blamed Israel not Ankara or the violent Islamist radicals on board. Israel behaves as if it has no respect for international law, say Germans. Outrageously, 47.7 percent of Germans surveyed believed “Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians.”

Sitting next to Merkel, Netanyahu was prompted to comment on the upheaval in the Arab world. He said Israel wanted to see its neighbors move toward democracy, "but we can't be sure" whether the transformations underway were a harbinger of the positive change Europe experienced in 1989 or that left Iran a mullahtocracy in 1979 "and we have to fashion our policies to that effect."

But many Germans have been infuriated by Netanyahu's attitude. On Egypt, for example, my German friend said Israelis ought to be cheering on the protestors and trying to form positive relationships with this new generation of potential leaders. In the face of the democracies they sense to be blooming, Germans see Israelis' obsessing over the Islamist menace as cynical and counter-productive.

On the diplomatic front, Germany supported a Security Council resolution promoted by the Arabs in February that demanded Israel cease all "settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory" including metropolitan Jerusalem, and termed any Jewish presence anywhere over the Green Line "illegal." Only a US-veto blocked passage. In the old days, Germany would have justified its infidelity toward Israel by citing the obligation to vote with other EU members. (Actually, the German's broke ranks with the EU by abstaining on the Libyan "no-fly zone" in the council.) When Netanyahu telephoned Merkel to protest the German vote on settlements, she turned the tables on him complaining that he had not followed through on a promised new peace overture.

To give Merkel her due, she did assure Netanyahu last week that Berlin would not agree to any unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN. This commitment takes on added significance because Germany has just begun a two-year term on the Security Council. Even so, there are persistent reports that Germany, France and Britain have been egging on the Quartet toward imposing a solution on Israel – hardly any better than Palestinian unilateralism in Israeli eyes

In 2008, Merkel told the Knesset that Germany would "never abandon Israel" and would "remain a loyal partner and friend." At the press conference with Netanyahu she declared that Iran's nuclear program is "a greater threat now than ever before" and that everything possible must be done to prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring nuclear weapons.

But Merkel's kinship toward Israel wins her few points even in her inner circle. Sixty-five years after the Holocaust, sentimental notions of historic responsibility are mostly balanced by realpolitik and Euro-left political culture.

That may be the context in which to understand Berlin's €4 billion annual trade with genocide-advocating Iran. To be fair, doing business with Iran is not illegal anywhere in the EU so long as it does not directly aid the mullahs' quest for nuclear weapons. Berlin, unlike Washington, professes to be unconvinced that the Hamburg-based European-Iranian Trade Bank is in fact a financial conduit for Iran’s nuclear proliferation. Anyway, Germans are big believers in engagement and say that punishing sanctions would mostly hurt innocent Iranians while paving the way for China and Russia to exploit the business vacuum created by Europe's departure.

Despite a sense of disillusionment that is increasingly mutual, it would be reckless to minimize Jerusalem's need for good relations with Germany. Germany is one of Israel's most important trade partners and its largest trading partner in Europe. Berlin has financed half the costs of three custom designed Dolphin-class submarines for the Israeli navy; two more are on order (negotiations over subsidizing a sixth are foundering). The subs are crucially vital to Israel's strategic deterrence against Iran. Germany's Interior minister was in Israel last month and held meetings with intelligence officials as part of the ongoing security relationship.

Netanyahu acknowledged in Berlin that Israel's existential security is one of Merkel's paramount concerns. Unique among EU leaders, she unequivocally refers to Israel as "the Jewish state" when promoting the two-state solution. For now, and under this Chancellor, the foundation of the German-Israel partnership remains solid even if, plainly, the façade is starting to crumble.

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-- April 12, 2011

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