Are German-Israeli Relations Still “Special?” A Response to Ambassador Shimon Stein

Shimon Stein’s essay on the complex relationship between Germany and Israel is both penetrating and provocative. As Israel approaches the 70th anniversary of the state’s founding on May 14, it is useful to reflect on the key partnership that has accompanied Israel in its passage from infancy to maturity.

He rightly points to the balance between morality and pragmatism as Germany’s framework for the relationship since the early 1950s. In fact, both sides, Germany and Israel, possessed this dual motivation for ties. Shimon Stein sees the balance today tipping toward more pragmatism. The key question is whether the current downturn constitutes a temporary negative phenomenon in an otherwise solid reconciliation, or a permanent movement away from partnership. Or is it too soon to tell? Also of importance, as Shimon Stein points out, is the very character of the relationship and whether it is unique or normal.  In addition to the uniqueness of the Holocaust, one can posit that “specialness” in the relationship can be seen in a second sense: the forging of an unlikely friendship since the early 1950s, including preferential German policies.

Two markers are identified for the dominance of pragmatism: Germany’s cancellation of the annual bilateral consultations and its suspension of signing the contract for the sale of submarines to Israel. In the former case, we should note that the fact of annual consultations is in itself unusual and preferential as Germany has such an arrangement with few other countries. The consultations also have some practical achievements such as the joint Africa Initiative, pointing to bureaucratic ties beneath the political level of relations. Regarding the submarines, in addition to German concern about Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, suspension was propelled by the reality of an Israeli police investigation into corruption over the submarine deal, reminding us of the importance of domestic politics influencing the bilateral relationship. By October, the German government approved the sale.

German official dissatisfaction with Israeli policies on the conflict with the Palestinians has increased but it is hardly new, developing over four decades since the German-Israeli divergences and “crisis of expectations” of the 1970s. It is noteworthy that even in her March 2008 Knesset speech, considered the zenith of the special relationship, Chancellor Merkel referred not only to the Jewish people, but also to the Palestinians in Palestine.  Despite Germany’s policy of Ausgewogenheit (balance) on the conflict, the practical links in the areas of defense and intelligence and science and technology that were forged in the 1950s continue to be central and preferential elements of the partnership today.

Shimon Stein usefully identifies the decline in German public opinion favoring Israel that accompanies changes in the official relationship. In fact, negative public attitudes toward Israel can be seen already in the 1950s in responses to the German-Israeli Reparations Agreement, the building block of future relations, and they have continued in subsequent decades.  Today’s irony is that Israeli public opinion toward Germany is more supportive than the other way around. Moreover, other measures of German public attitudes toward Israel, such as the work of various civil society organizations, paint a more positive outlook.

A key element of robust civil society activity are the encounters between young people such as youth exchange and institutions like Aktion Sühnezeichen that places young volunteers in Israel, and the German-Israeli Future Forum which brings together young professionals. Shimon Stein points to generational change as a cause of slippage in the relationship. As the witness generation quickly dwindles, official and societal leaders need to find new and creative institutional ways to engage young people with the German-Israeli relationship and with German history. Such an initiative begins with questions: can societal and governmental institutions revise and revamp their reconciliation goals and programs to resonate with the challenges facing the current generation and to animate their aspirations for the twenty-first century? How can institutions recruit new young leaders? Can we establish new channels through which young leaders and their institutions can be drawn in to decision fora with the German government as it seeks to be more active in international conflict resolution on the basis of Germany’s successful practice of postwar reconciliation?

The emphasis on new leadership reminds us of the importance of personalities in the shaping of German-Israeli ties, whether positively—Begin-Adenauer, Fischer-Sharon, Merkel-Olmert—or negatively—Begin-Schmidt, Gabriel-Netanyahu. Today, Germany has a new foreign minister, Heiko Maas, considered an “anti-Nazi crusader” as justice minister. At his installation as foreign minister, Maas stressed: “For me, German-Israeli history does not only entail an historic responsibility. For me personally, it is a deep motivation of my political activity.” Israel was one of the first countries Maas visited as the new foreign minister.

The German-Israeli partnership is at a crossroads with one path leading to specialness and the other to normalcy. If the relationship is to remain special, it will require proactive initiatives at all levels of the German government and German society. It has deep foundations on which to build. Shimon Stein is more pessimistic. He points to normalcy as a foregone conclusion. One thing is certain, whether the relationship is more special or less, we cannot take for granted this miraculous, unimaginable postwar achievement.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Lily Gardner Feldman

Harry and Helen Gray Senior Fellow; Director, Society, Culture & Politics Program

Dr. Lily Gardner Feldman is currently the Harry & Helen Gray Senior Fellow at AICGS at Johns Hopkins University. She also directs the Institute’s Society, Culture & Politics Program. She has a PhD in Political Science from MIT.

From 1978 until 1991, Dr. Gardner Feldman was a professor of political science (tenured) at Tufts University in Boston. She was also a Research Associate at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies, where she chaired the German Study Group and edited German Politics and Society; and a Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs, where she chaired the Seminar on the European Community and undertook research in the University Consortium for Research on North America. From 1990 until 1995, Dr. Gardner Feldman was the first Research Director of AICGS and its Co-director in 1995. From 1995 until 1999, she was a Senior Scholar in Residence at the BMW Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University. She returned to Johns Hopkins University in 1999.

Dr. Gardner Feldman has published widely in the U.S. and Europe on German foreign policy, German-Jewish relations, international reconciliation, non-state entities as foreign policy players, and the EU as an international actor. Her latest publications are: Germany’s Foreign Policy of Reconciliation: From Enmity to Amity, 2014; “Die Bedeutung zivilgesellschaftlicher und staatlicher Institutionen: Zur Vielfalt und Komplexität von Versöhnung,” in Corine Defrance and Ulrich Pfeil, eds., Verständigung und Versöhnung, 2016; and “The Limits and Opportunities of Reconciliation with West Germany During the Cold War: A Comparative Analysis of France, Israel, Poland and Czechoslovakia” in Hideki Kan, ed., The Transformation of the Cold War and the History Problem, 2017 (in Japanese). Her work on Germany’s foreign policy of reconciliation has led to lecture tours in Japan and South Korea.