Merkel meets Netanyahu as Israel and Germany hit rocky patch
Germany's abstention from the UN vote on the status of the Palestinian Authority angered Israel and raised questions about whether Germany's once almost unconditional support is changing.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained about Germanyâs âlack of consistencyâ toward theÂ Middle East peace process and attacked Chancellor Merkel personally: âI amÂ disappointed in her,â he told German newspaper Die Welt before he wentÂ to meet the chancellor for dinner on Wednesday.
âIsraelâs security is part ofÂ Germanyâs raison dâetre,â said Merkel today.Â
Taking responsibility for the Holocaust has turnedÂ Germany into one of the strongest allies of the Jewish state, next toÂ the United States.
But the German public seems to be saying it is not so sure it wants to support Israel as unconditionally as it has in the past.Â Any criticism, perceived or intended, from Germany is a big deal, as Berlin has solidly backed Israel in recent decades, leaving observers wondering if that support is changing now.
EvenÂ though it is not officially confirmed, Germanyâs UN vote is widelyÂ seen here as a reaction to Israelâs latest settlement announcement,Â which the Germans got wind of early.
âIsrael has undermined theÂ trust in its willingness to negotiate,â government spokesman SteffenÂ Seibert said of the settlement plans, adding that they led to theÂ âfurther shrinking of the geographical space for a future PalestinianÂ state which has to be the basic requirement for a two state solution.â
Emerging from the German-Israeli government consultationsÂ today, a regular meeting of both cabinets, Merkel and Netanyahu were keen to stress the good stateÂ of relationships at all levels between the two countries.
âThank you,Â Angela, for the warm welcome,â said Netanyahu.
âWhat a pleasure it isÂ that we can communicate in this way today, given our history,â saidÂ Merkel. And the settlement issue? Quickly dealt with for reporters: âWe agreed toÂ disagree.â
'Surprised and hurt'
Germany is not only one of Israelâs most importantÂ trade partners, it also provides arms and military equipment at veryÂ generous terms, such as submarines specifically developed for theÂ Israeli Navy and capable of launching missiles with nuclear warheads.
âIsrael has got used to unconditional support from Germany,â says AviÂ Primor, Israeli ambassador to Germany between 1993 and 1999. âSo itÂ was surprised and hurt by the official criticism.â
But the chemistry between Merkel and Netanyahu has deterioratedÂ over the past months, according to Mr.Â Primor, and Merkel needs toÂ reconsider her support for Israel against a backdrop of critical German public opinionÂ toward Israelâs role in theÂ Middle East.
âI think Germans are losing patience with our settlement policy andÂ our treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Itâs aÂ factor the German government canât ignore,â says Primor.
This wouldÂ not translate into an immediate policy change on the German side.Â But if after the Israeli elections in January the new governmentÂ continues a confrontational course toward the Palestinians, there isÂ a possibility that Germany might actually join the chorus of rather strongÂ critics within the European Union, Primor believes.
Earlier this year, German pollster Forsa published a studyÂ showing that 70 percent of Germans thought Israel was behavingÂ recklessly and without taking the interests of its neighbors intoÂ consideration, 59 percent called Israel âaggressive.â Both figures hadÂ risen by about 10 percentage points in comparison with a similar studyÂ carried out in 2009.
Observers like Martin Kloke, a Berlin-based specialist onÂ German-Israeli relations and author of âIsrael and the German Left âÂ The History of a Difficult Relationship,â think the reasons for thisÂ development are found not so much in Israelâs policy, but in a GermanÂ desire to rewrite history.
âOn the surface it is often ignorance,â Mr. Kloke says. âPeople seeÂ the pictures of Gaza being turned to rubble by Israeli helicopterÂ gunships, and they side with what they perceive as the underdog in thisÂ uneven fight.â
But in Klokeâs eyes the coverage of the conflictÂ already betrays a bias in the German media, which hardly covered theÂ week-long rocket attacks by Hamas on Israeli communities.
And thatÂ bias is the reflection of a sentiment in wider German society, saysÂ Kloke. âEvery Palestinian killed by Israeli shells minimizes German guilt.Â German protest against the mistreatment of Palestinians is not aboutÂ the Palestinians really, it is about showing that the Israelis arenâtÂ so different from our Nazi grandfathers,â says Kloke.
The government and the political elites in Germany are well aware ofÂ the risk that any criticism of Israel can be misused. This is why such criticism from officialsÂ isÂ very rare, says Kloke. âBut sometimes the Israelis make itÂ quite difficult for Merkel.â