Israel and Germany: a complicated historic bond

I arrived in Berlin in the late summer of 2017, and after 38 years in the Foreign Service, embarked on one of the most sensitive diplomatic posts as ambassador of Israel to Germany.

After presenting my credentials to President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, I proceeded to Gleis 17, the infamous train station in Grunewald, from which many of Berlin’s Jews were deported and never returned. It was clear that this complex relationship could never be separated from the “break in civilization” of the Holocaust, but was at the same time expanding into a strategic partnership. The dual character of the relationship became more apparent in the coming weeks and months.

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On the one hand, the AfD Party received for the first time over 90 seats in the Bundestag, Israeli flags were burned at anti-Israel demonstrations at the Brandenburg Gate, a Jewish restaurant owner was threatened by a Berliner with a return to the gas chambers, and an Arab-Israeli was assaulted by a Syrian immigrant for wearing a kippa. Judging by the strong condemnation by many German leaders, it was evident that these acts did not only attack and offend Jews or Israelis, but also constituted an assault on the very nature of Germany as a democratic, pluralistic and tolerant country.

On the other hand, it was clear that these disturbing acts were clearly not the essence of the relations that exist today between Israel and Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s historic 2008 Knesset speech in Jerusalem, emphasizing Germany’s commitment to the special relations with Israel and that Israel’s security was part of Germany’s raison d’etre (Staatsräson), remains the cornerstone of the bilateral relationship. The recent exceptional resolution of the Bundestag on Israel’s 70th anniversary is also testament to this special bond.

I personally witnessed this spirit during several meetings between President Steinmeier, President Reuven Rivlin, Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This intense exchange of views at senior levels revealed many areas of agreement and common purpose which are rooted in shared values and interests that embrace the broad spectrum of bilateral relations.

In particular, both diplomatic and defense establishments work together to enhance our respective national security; our intelligence agencies cooperate to enhance our people’s security and safety; start-ups from both countries are eagerly seeking each other out in the areas of innovation and mobility; and many other synergies are happening in the fields of cyber, scientific research, academia and culture. There are also invaluable youth exchanges and other people-to-people activities which further strengthen relationships on a more personal level.

Furthermore, Israel – a knowledge-based economy – and Germany – a major industrial power – actually complement each other’s strengths in many fields, whether civilian or military. A prime example is that Germany makes great cars and Israel has developed groundbreaking mobility-related technologies that are critical in an age of highly computerized and autonomous automobiles. It is for this reason that major German car companies are establishing a presence in Israel, in order to be closer to the centers of innovation that have become a hallmark of Israel’s creative economy. 

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As we look toward the coming years and the inter-governmental consultations in Jerusalem on October 4, it is important to develop a longer-range plan to strengthen even more the bilateral relationship, particularly bearing in mind a clear generational change occurring in both countries.

With her statement that the security of Israel is “Teil der Deutschen Staatsräson,” Chancellor Merkel has made a singular conceptual contribution to the relations between our two countries and peoples. A deeper formalization of this principle could be a compass for our future journey, in which Israel in turn is similarly committed to contributing to Germany’s national security interests and the safety of its citizens. A partnership in this spirit will be an enhancement of the existing synergies, particularly in the fields of innovation, counterterrorism and cybersecurity. Israel plays, and can play, a significant role in the overall effort to foil terrorism not only in the Middle East but also in Europe.

In the Middle East this will be a crucial time to focus on regional challenges, including the continued threat of Iran in the nuclear, missile and regional context; the need to broaden our exchanges regarding Syria; the removal of Iran and its proxies; the parallel efforts to strengthen the moderate governments in our region; and the continued pursuit of peace with all of our neighbors, including the Palestinians. Here again, these exchanges provide essential opportunities for both countries to identify areas in which they can help each other. The broadening convergence of interests between Israel and moderate Arab countries can also be an asset for Germany.

In Europe, we must continue to resolutely combat antisemitism, which was a friend of the horrific past and today is the enemy of the future. The negative feelings toward Jews and other minorities remain a disturbing problem also in Germany that have not been consigned to history. While this requires a multi-faceted response, we should amplify the perception at the popular level of Germany contributing to Israel’s national security and Israel contributing to German security interests and counterterrorism efforts. 
To further overcome negative stereotypes on both sides also rooted in a sense of guilt and anger over the past, we need to dramatically increase the youth exchanges between the two countries – between high schools, universities, research institutes and the next generation of young leaders. Ultimately this could be one of the more practical embodiments of Chancellor Merkel’s Staatsräson in civilian life. We must allow the younger generations of both countries to develop and strengthen the positive elements that currently exist and take them to the next level. This should be the common legacy for our children.

The relations between Israel and Germany will always be complicated and sensitive. Just as we look back at our history with despair and sorrow, we should look to our present and future relations with inspiration, imagination and innovation.

This article has been published in Tagesspiegel.

The writer is Israel’s ambassador to Berlin and previously served as vice director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

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