Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, His Policy toward Israel, and the German Responsibility for the Jewish People*

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of German-Israeli diplomatic relations, we are pleased to present a younger scholar’s views on an important crisis in the relationship: the proposed German-Saudi tank deal of 1981-1982.  That Germany and Israel could overcome this crisis and achieve the relationship they share today is evidence of what can be achieved in a climate of reconciliation.

Introduction: The Forgotten Crisis

It is a common notion that Helmut Schmidt was a chancellor who proved himself in times of crisis. As the obituaries after his death in November 2015 have once again pointed out, his tenure as West Germany’s head of government (1974-1982) came at a period of great economic, domestic, and foreign policy insecurities. Schmidt’s passing recalled the years when the country’s Wirtschaftswunder was ended by exploding oil prices; when left-wing terrorism challenged state and society; and when the Cold War intensified with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the NATO double-track decision.

However, Schmidt’s leadership period saw another crisis which was largely ignored by recent media accounts of his political life: the deep disturbance in German-Israeli relations during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The government of the Jewish state was then led by Menachem Begin, Israel’s first prime minister from the national-conservative Likud, who had been, at least prior to his election victory in 1977, a staunch opponent of any rapprochement between Israel and the Federal Republic.[1]

In the history of German-Israeli affairs, the Schmidt/Begin years were clearly the most troubled period. Bilateral relations reached an all-time low with the Schmidt/Begin crisis of May 1981. The mounting tensions between Bonn and Jerusalem—caused by dissent in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also by German considerations about tank exports to Saudi Arabia—then erupted into an unprecedented public attack by Begin. He associated Schmidt with the Nazi regime, pointing to his past as a Wehrmacht officer, and accused the German people of a collective guilt for the Holocaust. The affair was accompanied by a profound alienation between both countries, not only on the governmental, but even more on the societal level.[2]

In Israel’s recollection, Schmidt was to retain a negative image, being remembered as a federal chancellor much less sympathetic to the Jewish state than Adenauer, Brandt, or Kohl.[3] The fact that in the eight years of his chancellorship, Schmidt never visited Israel (despite being invited) contributed to this perception.

The neglect of the Israel issue in Germany’s public remembrance of Schmidt may be understandable, as the Jewish state, after all, was never among the top priorities of his chancellorship. However, the issue of German-Israeli affairs under Schmidt demands attention (both in political and academic terms) for three reasons: First, it is a meaningful chapter in the history of German-Israeli reconciliation—whose importance for Germany’s national identity has once again been solemnly confirmed by its political class in 2015 on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of diplomatic relations. Second, Schmidt’s political biography would simply be incomplete without a critical survey of his policy toward Israel, all the more as this field of action was deeply intertwined with all the above-mentioned “big crises” of his leadership period. And third, archival evidence that has become available in recent years allows some new insights into Schmidt’s political dealing with the Jewish state.[4]

Schmidt’s Position on a Possible Saudi Tank Deal

These findings are most important—and most ambivalent—when it comes to the single issue that burdened the German-Israeli relationship in the Schmidt/Begin years more than anything else: the controversy in 1981-1982 about a possible delivery of German tanks, especially Leopard 2 battle tanks, to Saudi Arabia—a country then officially in a state of war with Israel.[5] For more than a year, the matter was hotly discussed in Bonn, before the federal government finally sent a refusal to the Saudis.[6] Official sources about the Schmidt government’s internal decision-making process suggest some conclusions on two controversial questions: why the Saudi tank deal debate started at all, and why it finally ended. In the first case, the evidence is less surprising; in the second one, more.

Between 1982 and the last decade of his life, Schmidt repeatedly denied in public that the federal government he led had any intention of fulfilling the tank request from Riyadh (which the Saudi leadership had made to him confidentially in spring 1980).[7] In 2008, Schmidt responded to a public lecture by Shimon Stein, former Israeli ambassador to Germany. Within the context of Schmidt’s policy toward Saudi Arabia in 1981, Stein had critically referred to “the plans of the Germans to sell tanks to Israel’s enemies.” In reaction, Schmidt published a denial in which he stated that Begin at the time might have accused Germany of such plans, but these were “untrue allegations.”[8]

However, as far as Schmidt’s personal role as chancellor is concerned, a different story is told by the protocols of the coalition talks (Koalitionsgespräche), a session format in which the top leaders of the government and the coalition parties (the Social Democratic Party, SPD, and the Free Democratic Party, FDP) met on a regular basis. To be sure, the question remains open whether Schmidt did (as the Saudis later claimed)[9] or did not (as he later claimed)[10] ever make any kind of pledge toward Saudi Arabia about a Leopard 2 delivery. However, within the federal government Schmidt supported, at least initially, the idea of such a deal, as the archival evidence shows. The following includes an excerpt from the minutes of the coalition talk on 3 December 1980. Even if “tanks” or the Leopard 2 are not mentioned explicitly, there is little doubt that this was the very topic of discussion, given the thrust of the Saudi request and the focus of the public debate about it from early January 1981:[11]

“4. Saudi Arabia (supply of military equipment)

Chancellor reminds of coalition negotiations[12] and coalition talk on 25.11.[1980, H.L.]. As a complementary justification for his position, he refers to major Saudi DM [D-Mark] holdings. He adds the remark that VK [Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher] probably shares his view, but that considerable resistance in both coalition parliamentary parties (especially in SPD) has to be expected. [Saudi Foreign Minister] Prince [Saud al-] Faisal can expect an answer by Christmas.

Vice Chancellor [Genscher] confirms that he is inclined to the chancellor’s view. On the other hand, he doubts whether the stabilization of Saudi Arabia and the region can be secured in the long term and decisively by supplies of armaments.”[13]

Later in this discussion, Schmidt called the Saudi armament issue an “individual case out of self-interest.”[14] Some months later, in the coalition talk of 18 March 1981—after the political discussion had revealed tremendous resistance to tank sales to Riyadh—Schmidt once again made clear his own attitude. The minutes quote him as saying that in regard to the deal with Saudi Arabia, “at least until now he did not see a basis for a positive response. His attitude in the matter was known. However, he doubted being able to enforce it in his own parliamentary group.”[15]

As said, it is hardly surprising that Chancellor Schmidt supported the idea of selling German tanks to Saudi Arabia.[16] There were strong arguments in favor of complying with Riyadh’s request at the time, both in terms of the economy and Western security strategy. Saudi Arabia was West Germany’s biggest oil supplier, a lender of tremendous loans for the federal budget, and a potential billionaire client for German companies, especially in the building sector.[17] Furthermore, especially after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution in 1979, strengthening Saudi Arabia’s military seemed to be a general strategic need for the Western world—and such a need was met first and foremost by the United States, traditionally Saudi Arabia’s main arms supplier.[18]

In a speech to the German Bundestag on 30 January 1981, Schmidt summarized all these arguments in favor of opening West Germany’s arms export policy toward Saudi Arabia, a country he praised as a “stability factor of the first order” for the Middle East region.[19] Even if Schmidt, in this public statement, stopped short of explicitly endorsing a German-Saudi arms deal, he showed a clear tendency in support of it. Behind closed doors during his visit to Saudi Arabia in April 1981, in a meeting with Crown Prince Fahd, he was once again outspoken, saying that “everybody in Germany […] knew that he supported the arms delivery to Saudi Arabia.”[20] As Israeli archival sources show, the same message was given to Israeli diplomats who investigated the issue within the circles of the SPD-FDP coalition in Bonn.[21] And in Washington, DC, Nicholas Veliotes, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, confirmed to the Israeli ambassador Ephraim Evron that, “according to information he got from a reliable source in Bonn,” Schmidt was interested in selling the Leopards.[22] West German media, too—and certainly Israeli journalists—regarded Schmidt as a driving force behind a possible tank delivery to Riyadh.[23]

Against this background, it is rather astonishing that Schmidt was later so eager to deny his personal stance on the Saudi tank debate at the time. There are several plausible explanations for his denial. Perhaps Schmidt simply tried to cover up the traces of a political defeat, and perhaps he did not want to be remembered as a chancellor who strove to lift the barriers for German arms exports.[24] And more specifically, perhaps he did not want to admit publicly that in 1981-1982, his government ultimately corrected its political line due to a special consideration of Israeli interests. As archival findings from the final stage of the Saudi tank deal debate suggest, a history-related sense of commitment to the Jewish state did indeed (unlike Schmidt’s public statements then) play a crucial role for the government’s internal decision to refuse the arms delivery.

Since January 1981, Israel had protested resolutely against a German-Saudi tank transfer, unified in this regard by a consensus that included the Begin government, the opposition parties, the diplomacy establishment, media, and civil society actors.[25] However, in explaining the failure of the Saudi tank deal under Schmidt, scholars have, by and large, attached rather secondary importance to the “Israel factor,” stressing instead the current of resistance—especially in the parliamentary groups of the governing SPD and FDP—which was motivated by a general left-wing, pacifism-inspired rejection of increased German arms exports.[26]

At this point, one has to remember that in 1981, Leopard 2 deliveries to Saudi Arabia would have meant a serious breach with West Germany’s existing arms export regulations. The political guidelines for arms exports valid up to then, adopted by the federal government in 1971, were basically restrictive.[27] According to the guidelines, weapons of war (such as battle tanks) could only be delivered to NATO states; justified exceptions were formally possible, but only if the country of destination did not belong to an “area of tension”—a criterion that clearly excluded Saudi Arabia. Exports of German weapons of war to Israel, we should note, also were not approved in this period.[28]

Therefore, it was to be expected that the Schmidt government encountered substantial resistance in its own parliamentary base against such a transgression of existing arms export rules. And this resistance was all the more effective as at the time of the Saudi tank deal debate, Schmidt was already at odds with large parts of the SPD on various other issues, especially when it came to the NATO double-track decision, which was the dominant subject for West Germany’s foreign policy in those days. The common interpretation seems indeed plausible that the Schmidt/Genscher government in the end had to sacrifice the Saudi tank deal plans in order to secure the coalition parties’ support for the much more important double-track decision.[29] Nevertheless, the refusal of the armament delivery to Riyadh in 1982 was not only about Schmidt’s conflict with the representatives of the West German Friedensbewegung (peace movement) in his own party. It was apparently also related to the acknowledgement of a specific German responsibility toward Israel due to the Holocaust—and not just in the SPD parliamentary group, but also inside the federal government.

As for the SPD parliamentary group, documents from the Israel State Archives suggest that especially Herbert Wehner, the mighty Social Democratic whip, played a decisive role in blocking the Leopard 2 delivery, and this for reasons of solidarity with Israel. Wehner can be seen as the one genuinely pro-Israel actor within the legendary Social Democratic leadership “troika,” consisting of Chancellor Schmidt, SPD party head Willy Brandt, and himself.[30] As early as 21 January 1981—at the very beginning of the Saudi tank deal debate, when the decision-making process still seemed to be open—Wehner assured Israeli ambassador Meroz “solemnly” in a personal meeting “that, come what may, the Saudi deal would not be realized.”[31]

Even more significant is a certain record from the center of West Germany’s executive branch, dating from the final stage of the Saudi tank deal debate.

The Secret “Israel Clause” in Germany’s Arms Export Guidelines

Prompted by the single issue of a possible Leopard 2 sale to Riyadh, the federal government in 1981 started a comprehensive process of reviewing and reformulating the existing arms export guidelines mentioned above. In spring 1982, the new principles were adopted by the Bundessicherheitsrat (BSR, Federal Security Council), Germany’s inner security cabinet headed by the chancellor. Along with these guidelines, the committee also agreed—at the initiative of Foreign Minister Genscher—on a secret protocol note to which the government internally referred (before and afterward) as the “Israel clause” or “Israel declaration.”[32] In the minutes of the BSR session of 3 March 1982, within the thematic context of Germany’s future arms export policy, it reads as follows: “FM Genscher would like it to be recorded that in consideration of our overall interests the historical responsibility of the Germans toward the Jewish people is also included. The Chancellor [Schmidt] noted expressly general agreement.”[33]

One has to be careful with an overall interpretation of this clause, as the available archival sources provide only a fragmentary picture of its origins and consequences. However, some features of the protocol note can be outlined. First of all, it was not just a rhetorical phrase, but had operational effects for Bonn’s arms export policy. Officials of the German Foreign Office and the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs referred to it in internal decision-making procedures as one argument (one among several, to be sure) against the delivery of heavy tanks to Saudi Arabia, also after the change from the Schmidt/Genscher to the Kohl/Genscher government in October 1982.[34] At the same time, the clause was subject to interpretation. As a BSR decision of December 1982 shows, it did not exclude, for example, the delivery of German patrol boats to Saudi Arabia—which were much less threatening for Israel.[35] And to avoid a possible misunderstanding: The Israel clause of 1982 was obviously not designed to promote German arms deliveries to Israel, but to prevent certain of such deliveries to certain Arab states.

Second, as far as the substantive thrust is concerned: With this clause Genscher apparently tried to counterbalance—with a specific focus on the Middle East—the general loosening of Germany’s arms export regulations that resulted from the new political guidelines of 1982.[36] As a matter of fact, without the Israel clause the revised principles could have well been interpreted in a way that would have justified the Saudi tank deal. The guidelines now included a kind of elastic clause, according to which the delivery of weapons of war to non-NATO states could be approved if “vital interests of the Federal Republic of Germany suggest the need to make such exemption.”[37] Such “vital interests” could of course also include the assurance of Germany’s oil supply.[38]

And third, whereas the new arms export principles themselves were published, the protocol note was kept strictly confidential. It was, let it be understood, not used to appease the Israelis, not even confidentially. According to the governmental records on the Saudi tank deal issue available in the Israel State Archives, the Israeli Foreign Office and the embassy in Bonn—which had made a great effort for months to follow the German decision-making process—knew nothing of the declaration.[39] Therefore, the clause appears as a purely internal self-commitment of the federal government.

To be sure, it is less remarkable that Foreign Minister Genscher submitted the Israel clause in the BSR session. He may have initially been inclined in favor of the Saudi tank deal, as the coalition talk of 1980 quoted above suggests. Nevertheless, in the following months—presumably after a change of mind[40]—Genscher repeatedly used in public a very similar Israel-friendly, Holocaust-related formula to describe his stance toward arms exports to the Middle East.[41]

What, however, is indeed surprising is the fact that Chancellor Schmidt, as the quoted source shows, also agreed to the protocol note. After all, Schmidt had acquired the public reputation that his policy toward Israel was driven by a will to “normalize” the bilateral relationship, i.e., to disconnect it from moral obligations derived from the Nazi past. Some scholars have seen the Saudi tank deal issue as the very symbol of Schmidt’s disinclination to let the present be ruled by the past.[42]

Shortly before his visit to Saudi Arabia in April 1981—where the possible weapons transfer was to be a high-priority topic—the chancellor was asked in an interview by German television whether “the commitment toward Israel” would lead his government to a restrained arms exports policy in the specific Saudi case. His answer was blunt: “No, we do not allow another state or the government of another state to dictate us what to do and what not to do.”[43] When Schmidt returned from his journey to Riyadh (where the tank issue had remained open), he was quoted by the magazine “Der Spiegel” as saying that West Germany’s future foreign policy “must not be overshadowed by Auschwitz.”[44] And when Begin, as mentioned above, launched his public polemic against Schmidt soon thereafter, the immediate trigger for this was a TV interview by the chancellor in which he reflected on the historical burdens for Bonn’s external relations and left—next to a number of at least rhetorical blunders—a deafening silence on a possible commitment to Israel.[45]

Some years before, in November 1978, in a highly praised speech Schmidt gave in the Cologne synagogue on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the “Reichskristallnacht” pogrom, he had elaborated on the consequences of the Nazi past for present-day German politics. He recognized a basic responsibility that the present generation of Germans had to take on for the crimes during the Nazi regime, and he explained the deriving postulates in terms of domestic and foreign policy. These were, put briefly, to defend West Germany’s democratic achievements internally and to contribute to a peaceful resolution of conflicts in the world. In regard to the Middle East, Schmidt promoted the peoples’ “right of self-determination”—a clear reference to the Palestinian cause—but refrained from explicitly mentioning any German engagement for Israel’s right to exist.[46] Apparently, a genuine political solidarity with the Jewish state was not among the lessons from the Nazi past Schmidt was willing to accept.[47]

Against this background, it might look puzzling that it happened precisely under Chancellor Schmidt that the German government adopted a protocol note that effectively reinforced the notion of a “special relationship” with Israel, restricting the Federal Republic’s international policy for reasons of a specific history-related obligation. However, it is quite possible to see a certain logic in this move—it could have been directed, paradoxically, by the same sense of Realpolitik which had guided Schmidt’s policy toward Israel all along. At this point it is helpful to broaden the perspective and take a look at his overall acting and attitude in regard to the Jewish state.

German-Israeli Relations in the Shadow of the Middle East Conflict

Schmidt actually made a number of—partly personal—contributions for the cause of German-Israeli relations throughout his government career, as one should not overlook despite the acrimonious quarrels with Begin. During his tenure as Federal Minister of Defense (1969-1972), Schmidt acquired “merits” when it came to security cooperation between Israel and the Federal Republic, according to Shimon Peres’s later testimony.[48] In terms of financial support, it was only due to a highest-level decision by Chancellor Schmidt that in 1976, the Federal Republic—against the recommendation of the Ministry of Finance—provided a confidential federal guarantee (Bundesbürgschaft) for an untied financial loan of D‑Mark 100 million by a German bank for Israel.[49] And the annual German development aid for Israel was upheld during Schmidt’s tenure as chancellor, despite repeated considerations within the federal government to phase out these payments.[50]

At the multilateral level, Schmidt was ready to act as a facilitator between Israel and other states: In 1977 (before Begin’s election victory), Schmidt complied with a personal request by Foreign Minister Yigal Allon and brought up Israel’s wish to normalize relations with Spain in a meeting with King Juan Carlos.[51] In 1979, the chancellor supported—after initial hesitation[52]—the lifting of the statute of limitations for Nazi murders, a political decision that most probably spared the German-Israeli relations another major crisis.[53] And in terms of personal contacts, Chancellor Schmidt had a close and friendly exchange especially with Moshe Dayan, the foreign minister in Begin’s first government, as well as a good relationship with Yochanan Meroz, Israel’s Ambassador in Bonn during those years.[54]

These points may indicate that Schmidt entertained a certain—later possibly underrated—degree of goodwill in terms of Israel. However, this does not alter the impression that his political attitude toward the Jewish state was predominantly guided by a sober sense of German self-interest and only secondarily, if at all, by a genuine commitment to reconciliation after the Holocaust. Generally speaking: Schmidt’s stance in regard to German-Israeli relations was largely subject to Israel’s role in the Middle East conflict, whereas, in turn, Schmidt’s concern for the Middle East conflict was mostly derived from the repercussions this regional issue had both on West Germany’s economic and security interests and on the strategic posture of the Western world toward the Soviet Union within the framework of the Cold War.

It is well in line with such an interest-based approach that Schmidt—according to his own later testimony—underwent a change of attitude toward Israel during the 1970s, from an “inner pro-Israeli position” to a more distant or (as he called it) “neutral” stance.[55] As defense minister, Schmidt regarded Israel primarily as a strategic ally, as “the only firmly Western-oriented state” in the Middle East that was, in terms of defense, also very important for Germany, as Schmidt said in a cabinet meeting in 1971.[56] In the further course of this decade, however, West Germany was exposed to a number of factors that worked toward loosening its commitment to Israel in favor of fostering relations with the Arab world.

As other Western states, the Federal Republic then shaped its Middle East policy under the continuing influence of the first oil crisis in 1973, which was followed by the second one in 1979—both revealing dramatically the dependence of the industrial states on oil supplies from Arab countries. Furthermore, West Germany was part of the emerging European Political Cooperation (EPC) on foreign policy, which from its start in the early 1970s put a strong focus on the Palestinian issue—not least driven by France under President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who was Schmidt’s most important partner in the European integration process.[57] And the overall context of the Cold War, which deepened with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, had an impact, as well. Strengthening Western ties with important Arab countries, as already mentioned for the case of Saudi Arabia, appeared to be necessary in order to contain Moscow’s influence in the Middle East.

In such a constellation, Israel—given its unsolved conflict with the Arab world—could easily turn from an ally to a disturbing factor in West Germany’s foreign policy. Indeed, tensions between Bonn and Jerusalem already arose when the Israeli government was still led by the Labour Party, as both Chancellor Brandt’s visit to Israel in 1973 and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s visit to Bonn in 1975 showed.[58] Since the days of the Brandt/Scheel government in the early 1970s, Bonn had been anxious to take a “well-balanced” stance toward the Middle East conflict and increasingly considered the interests of the Palestinians.[59]

The political strains created thereby in the German-Israeli relationship intensified sharply after Menachem Begin—Israel’s first prime minister from the right-wing Likud—came to power in 1977. The Begin government accelerated Israel’s settlement policy in the Palestinian territories and provoked international protests (at times also by the U.S. government) with a series of controversial decisions and military operations. Among them were the annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights in 1980-1981, the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor “Osirak” in 1981, and especially the military intervention in Lebanon of 1982.[60] Even the successful U.S.-brokered peace process between Israel and Egypt from 1977 to 1979 was regarded by some European leaders only with reserve, as in their eyes it did not offer a sustainable solution for the Palestinian issue while isolating Egypt in the Arab world.[61] Chancellor Schmidt—who had a very close relationship with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat—shared this skepticism about the Camp David process.[62]

Contributing to the frictions between Bonn and Jerusalem was certainly also the fact that Begin had a well-known record of grim resistance against German-Israeli reconciliation from his earlier political career. However, it would be too simple to just draw a straight line from Begin’s radical anti-German speeches in the 1950s to his polemics against Schmidt in 1981. Begin displayed a surprisingly pragmatic, “statesmanlike” attitude toward the existing German-Israeli relations after he was elected prime minister in 1977. As various sources show, he had no intention whatsoever to downgrade the existing relationship with the Federal Republic.[63] And he also explicitly confirmed the invitation for Schmidt—already given by Rabin—to visit Israel.[64]

Most probably, it would have been difficult for any federal chancellor to visit Israel under Prime Minister Begin.[65] On the other hand, such a visit could maybe have offered a chance to promote German-Israeli reconciliation also within Israel’s rightwing camp. However, such a perception would have required from Schmidt a clear emphasis on the bilateral dimension of the relationship with the Jewish state. But Schmidt, as said, shaped his Israel policy primarily as an external actor of the Middle East conflict. To the growing frustration of politicians and public in the country, he endlessly postponed his journey to Israel. According to the explanations Schmidt gave behind closed doors for this conduct, his concern was that a visit to Israel would create the impression of German support for Begin’s policy toward the Palestinians,[66] or that a meeting with the prime minister would inevitably lead to an open confrontation due to the dissent on Middle East issues.[67] Schmidt’s dilatory behavior on a possible Israel visit was supported by the German Foreign Office,[68] however criticized internally by the ambassador in Tel Aviv, Klaus Schütz, who pointed to Schmidt’s regular dialogue with leaders of Arab states.[69]

Of course it was not only the never-made chancellor visit to Israel by which Schmidt expressed his critical views of the Begin government. It is a common myth that Germany, given the Nazi past, has always been forced into an either passive or pro-Israeli role in its political conduct toward the Middle East conflict. In reality, the federal government was mostly able to secure a relatively large political leeway in shaping its Middle East policy. This is also true for the Schmidt/Begin years, when Bonn was exposed to particularly strong pressure from Jerusalem in terms of history politics. A suitable test case may be provided by the “Venice Declaration” of the European Council in June 1980, Europe’s most prominent contribution in those years to the efforts for achieving a Middle East peace solution. The declaration was vigorously rejected by Israel, especially as it called for the association of the PLO—an organization then still committed to the destruction of the Jewish State—with peace negotiations.[70]

In the development of the document, West Germany was neither a restrained nor a particularly pro-Israeli actor. Foreign Minister Genscher claimed credit in his memoirs that the Venice Declaration had been drafted “in close cooperation between my French colleague [Foreign Minister Jean] François-Poncet and me.”[71] Admittedly, West Germany was among those of the nine European Community member states at the time that contributed to preventing an even stronger pro-Palestinian tendency of the declaration, which was pursued especially by France.[72]

However, the federal government did not exactly spearhead the Israel-friendly camp among the European states. As an internal document from the German Foreign Office summarized, during the discussions in the run-up to the European Council of Venice, “F [France] and largely I [Italy] on one side, and NL [Netherlands] and DK [Denmark] on the other side confronted each other as antipodes. We have taken a middle position.”[73] Hence, the German contribution to the final wording of the declaration was rather ambivalent in terms of considering Israel’s interests.

It is true that, according to the German record, the federal government successfully worked toward inserting an explicit recognition of Israel’s “right to exist” into the document. And the German side also managed to include a general appeal to the Middle East conflict parties for a “renunciation of force”—which could be read as a call to stop terrorism against Israel.[74] However, it was also on Germany’s initiative that two points directed distinctly against the Begin government found their way into the Venice declaration: an explicit condemnation of the Israeli settlement policy—branded as “a serious obstacle to the peace process”—and a clear warning that the Europeans would not accept any unilateral change to the status of Jerusalem[75] (which indeed was implemented only weeks later with Israel’s “Jerusalem Law” by which East Jerusalem was de facto annexed).[76]

Furthermore, the Venice declaration contained an important innovation as it—for the first time in a Middle East declaration by the Europeans—explicitly supported the “right to self-determination” of the Palestinian people. And in regard to this demand, the Schmidt/Genscher government was virtually a pioneer among the EC member states. As early as November 1974, shortly after Schmidt had taken office as chancellor, the Federal Republic was the first Western state to advocate for the Palestinian right to self-determination at the UN General Assembly.[77] And in September 1979, it was “at German insistence,” according to a German Foreign Office document, that the nine EC member states promoted that concept for the first time—though only implicitly—in a joint statement which was presented at the United Nations by the Irish foreign minister.[78] Chancellor Schmidt also championed the case of Palestinian self-determination publicly, long before that notion appeared in a common European statement. And since 1978, he publicly even supported—again exceeding the official European consensus—the Palestinians’ “right to organize in a state-like manner” (Recht, sich staatlich zu organisieren).[79]

The Schmidt government may have denied formal recognition of the PLO, but this was the majority position among West European states at the time.[80] Despite the lack of an official status, a de-facto PLO office in Bonn had been already opened in the mid-1970s. It was headed by Abdallah Frangi, who was received by Genscher, not in his capacity as foreign minister, but as a party leader in the FDP headquarters.[81] And it was a principal figure of the West German social-liberal coalition—SPD head Willy Brandt—who was part of an event that the PLO celebrated as a historic breakthrough in terms of European recognition: the Vienna meeting of Yasser Arafat, Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky, and Brandt in July 1979.[82]

Beyond the level of party representatives, West German embassies in certain Arab countries maintained, on the working level, contacts with the PLO in the 1970s.[83] To a great extent, this exchange was motivated by Bonn’s security concerns, given the threat of Palestinian terrorism on German soil (the Munich massacre of 1972 remaining a lasting warning) and the cooperation between Palestinian and West German left-wing terrorists, as demonstrated most dramatically with the hijacking of the “Landshut” aircraft in 1977. Thus the terrorist menace of the Schmidt era—which, to be sure, also fostered German-Israeli intelligence cooperation[84]—was another crisis factor that contributed to Bonn’s general tendency to move closer to the Arab side.[85]

Conclusion: A Redefinition of “Realpolitik”?

If Schmidt’s policy toward Israel was basically interest-based and driven more by a will to “normalize” the relationship than by a sense of a “special” historical commitment, as demonstrated prominently in Bonn’s dealing with the Middle East conflict, then we must ask: How can the adoption of the secret Israel clause to West Germany’s arms export guidelines of 1982 be reconciled with such a distinct Realpolitik approach? A plausible answer might be that the very meaning of Realpolitik in terms of German-Israeli relations was silently redefined by the Schmidt government as a result of the Saudi tank deal conflict.

Such a redefinition would have been a correction of two miscalculations by the Schmidt government, a tactical one and a fundamental one. Tactically, the proponents of a Saudi tank deal were apparently guided by the wrong assumption that the expected protest from Israel could be appeased with the offer of compensatory German weapon deliveries to Israel.[86] In a more basic way, the government seems to have underestimated the potentially devastating effects on German-Israeli relations which a Saudi tank deal against Jerusalem’s resistance could have. As said, the Schmidt/Begin crisis of 1981, which erupted against the background of the arms export conflict, was more than a quarrel between two politicians; it led to a deep rift between Germans and Israelis on various political and societal levels. However united West Germany’s political class was in rejecting Begin’s diatribes against Schmidt,[87] the whole incident still seems to have left a certain shock effect on Bonn’s foreign policy establishment. For a moment, there was the realistic prospect of a virtual collapse in German-Israeli reconciliation, which could hardly have been in the interest of the Federal Republic.

Furthermore, as Schmidt experienced especially on a visit to Washington, DC, in May 1981, the crisis in German-Israeli relations threatened to damage Bonn’s relationship with the American Jewish community as well.[88] In those years, the federal government took a distinct interest in fostering relations between American Jewish organizations and West Germany; the Chancellery had supported such an initiative by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in 1979.[89] This stance was motivated not least by the fact that during the 1970s, the public Holocaust memory in the United States had intensified significantly—a development of which Schmidt was well aware.[90] Now, a conflict with American Jewry about tank sales to Saudi Arabia could, in Bonn’s view, eventually lead to harming Germany’s reputation among the broad U.S. public and thus burden German-American relations in general—even if the Reagan administration at the time did not oppose such an arms deal.[91] Against this background, a somewhat enigmatic document from the Israel State Archives could well be understood. As Israeli ambassador Yitzchak Ben‑Ari (Meroz’ successor) reported confidentially from Bonn to Jerusalem in early January 1982, Schmidt had told his advisors that he changed his mind about Leopard 2 deliveries to Saudi Arabia. The cable continued: “It has been assumed that Schmidt took the relations between the United States and West Germany into consideration and changed his decision also under this aspect.”[92]

Given the potential international repercussions, both in terms of Israel and the United States—and in addition to the resistance on the domestic stage—the political cost-benefit calculation of a German-Saudi tank deal might have changed considerably in Bonn. Schmidt apparently had to recognize the “red lines” which existed in German-Israeli affairs and which could not be crossed without unbearably high political expenses. In this regard, it was one conclusion the federal government drew from the fierce quarrels between Bonn and Jerusalem in the Schmidt/Begin era: that a careful handling of bilateral relations with Israel was less an obstacle and rather a precondition for an active and “balanced” role of Germany in regard to the Middle East conflict.[93]

From such a perspective, taking German responsibility toward Israel seriously could easily turn from a just “moral” (and therefore, cynically spoken, dispensable) attitude into a pragmatic conflict-prevention strategy. One might argue that in the Saudi tank deal affair, there was finally only one way for the Schmidt government to evade the unpleasant prospect that it had to give in to external pressure from Israel: to impose on itself a self-obligation, when it came to a historically-based commitment toward Israel—as was done with the Israel clause in the German arms export guidelines of 1982.

At the same time, it was plausible to keep this self-obligation secret. Obviously Schmidt had a deep concern that he would lose face with the Saudis if the refusal of the Leopard 2 deal should appear as the result of a German obligation to Israel. With the confidential protocol note, however, the federal government had an internal instrument to prevent clashes with Israel in terms of weapon deliveries to Arab states, while on the open stage, Schmidt could still emphasize West Germany’s independence and sovereignty in arms export issues—thus underlining the increased self-confidence in international affairs which the Federal Republic had achieved by the early 1980s.

Not least, this ambiguous course made it possible for the chancellor to adjust his diplomatic language to the different expectations of Germany’s partners in the world. So, on the one hand, Schmidt stressed repeatedly in closed meetings with Saudi leaders that his government’s decision on the tank issue had “nothing to do” with any special consideration of Israel.[94] In a conversation with leaders of American Jewry in July 1981, on the other hand, he claimed that the Bonn government had abandoned the German-Saudi tank deal precisely because of a “very special consideration for Israeli interests.”[95]

One might call such a behavior two-faced. In more sober terms, given Schmidt’s unpleasant position between Israeli and Arab pressure, it was probably a method of crisis management, guided by a characteristic sense of Realpolitik.

Hubert Leber, M.A., was a Harry & Helen Gray/AICGS Reconciliation Fellow in August and September 2015. He is a Doctoral Candidate at the Philipps University of Marburg and the University of Haifa.


* The work on this article benefited from a research stay at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) in Washington, DC, in August/September 2015, within the framework of a Harry & Helen Gray/AICGS Reconciliation Fellowship. The author would like to thank the AICGS and especially Lily Gardner Feldman for their support.

[1] For Begin’s opposition in the 1950s against negotiations with West Germany on compensation see Tom Segev, The Seventh Million. The Israelis and the Holocaust (New York, 1993), pp. 283-303.

[2] Werner Bergmann, “Realpolitik versus Geschichtspolitik. Der Schmidt-Begin-Konflikt von 1981,” in Jahrbuch für Antisemitismusforschung 7 (1998), pp. 266-287.

[3] Shlomo Shafir, “Helmut Schmidt: Seine Beziehungen zu Israel und den Juden,” in Jahrbuch für Antisemitismusforschung 17, ed. Wolfgang Benz (2008), pp. 297-321 (297). For a newspaper comment at the time on Schmidt see e.g., Herzl Rosenblum, “The worst of all” (Hebrew), in Yediot Achronot, 29 April 1981.

[4] This article is to a large extent based on sources from the following archives: German Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv, BA) Koblenz; Political Archives of the German Foreign Office (Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amtes, PAAA) Berlin; Archiv der sozialen Demokratie/Depositum Helmut Schmidt, AdsD, Bonn; Israel State Archives (ISA), Jerusalem. Primary sources were also available through the edition “Documents on the Foreign Policy of the Federal Republic of Germany” (Akten zur Auswärtigen Politik der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, AAPD), edited by the Institut für Zeitgeschichte, Munich. All translations from German or Hebrew into English by the author.

[5] For a detailed study of the Saudi tank deal debate in West Germany, both under Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Chancellor Helmut Kohl, see Michael Wolffsohn, German-Saudi Arabian Arms Deals, 1936–1939 and 1981–1985 (Frankfurt a.M., 1985). The source basis of this early account did not include governmental files which had not yet been declassified by the respective archives at the time.

[6] After Helmut Kohl had taken over the chancellery in October 1982, the political discussion about possible German tank deliveries to Saudi Arabia started anew (and ended again with Bonn’s refusal). Wolffsohn, German-Saudi Arabian Arms Deals [as note 5], pp. 91-103. This chapter of the Saudi tank deal debate, however, is not dealt with in this essay, which focuses on Schmidt’s tenure as chancellor.

[7] In the run-up to King Khalid’s visit to Bonn in June 1980, the Saudi crown prince Fahd sent a letter to Schmidt on 19 May 1980, expressing the wish for the delivery of “a number of armouries and equipment, especially Leopard 2A tanks, Gepard tanks carrying the 35 mm anti-aircraft guns as well as the Marder troop carriers.” PAAA, B 150, 1980, VS-Band 11162 (311), Botschafter Vestring, Djidda, an AA, Nr. 430, 27.5.1980.

[8] Helmut Schmidt, “Keine Panzerlieferung,” ZEIT Online, 27 March 2008, <>. Stein’s lecture: Shimon Stein, “Es hat sich trotzdem gelohnt. Von Jerusalem nach Berlin und zurück – eine diplomatische Reise,” ZEIT Online, 20 March 2008, <>. For an early denial by Schmidt see his statement to the Foreign Press Club (Verein der Auslandspresse) in Bonn on 26 May 1982, “Schmidt: Keine Panzer für Saudi-Arabien,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 29.5.1982.

[9] AAPD 1984, Doc. 159, Aufzeichnung des Staatssekretärs Meyer-Landrut, 4.6.1984, p. 771; Manfred Schell, “Kohl zog bei Fahd enge Grenzen für Rüstungsexport,” Die Welt, 17.10.1983. Interestingly Horst Ehmke, then deputy head of the SPD parliamentary group, wrote in his memoirs about the abandonment of “the already promised delivery of Leopard 2 tanks” by the Schmidt government. Horst Ehmke, Mittendrin. Von der Großen Koalition zur Deutschen Einheit (Berlin, 1994), p. 282.

[10] See, additionally to Schmidt’s above-mentioned denials [note 8], Peter Schellschmidt (Büro Helmut Schmidt), “Dreimal gesagt” [Letter to the editor], Der Spiegel, 35/1983, 29 August 1983.

[11] The public debate on the Saudi tank deal issue started with an article—apparently due to a government leak—in the news magazine “Der Spiegel”: “Deutsche Panzer nach Saudi-Arabien?” Der Spiegel, 1/1981, 5 January 1981, pp. 19-22.

[12] Federal elections were held in West Germany on 5 October 1980.

[13] Koalitionsgespräch, 3.12.1980, protocol, pp. 3f. AdsD, Depositum Helmut Schmidt, 1/HSAA009379. Original text (emphasis in original): “4. Saudi-Arabien (Lieferung von Rüstungsmaterial) // Bundeskanzler erinnert an Koalitionsverhandlungen und Koalitionsgespräch vom 25.11. Er weist als ergänzende Begründung für seine Position auf große saudische DM-Holdings hin. Er ergänzt durch den Hinweis, daß VK [Genscher] wohl seine Auffassung teile, allerdings mit erheblichem Widerstand in beiden Koalitionsfraktionen (insbesondere bei SPD) zu rechnen sei. Prinz Feisal könne Antwort bis Weihnachten beanspruchen. // Vizekanzler [Genscher] bestätigt, daß er der Auffassung Bundeskanzler zuneige. Andererseits zweifelt er, ob die Stabilisierung Saudi-Arabiens und der Region über die Lieferung von Rüstungsmaterial langfristig und entscheidend gesichert werden könne.”

[14] Ibid., p. 5 (“Saudi-Arabien: Einzelfall aus Eigeninteresse”). See in the same folder also the protocol of the coalition talk on 10 December 1980, p. 3 (under the headline “Saudi Arabia”). According to this, SPD head Willy Brandt—apparently with a rather skeptical attitude—“agreed, in case of a positive decision, to sell the decision of the federal government ‘as good as I can’” (“W. Brandt erklärt sich für den Fall einer positiven Entscheidung bereit, den Beschluß der BReg so ‘gut zu verkaufen, wie ich kann’”). Before Brandt’s statement, Chancellor Schmidt had once again brought up his opinion (“BK [Bundeskanzler] trägt erneut seine Auffassung vor”).

[15] Koalitionsgespräch, 18.3.1981, protocol, p. 3. AdsD, Depositum Helmut Schmidt, 1/HSAA009379. Original text (under the headline “Rüstungsexportpolitik”—arms export policy): “Was das Geschäft mit Saudi-Arabien angehe, so sehe er bislang jedenfalls keine Grundlage für eine positive Reaktion. Seine Einstellung in der Sache sei bekannt. Er zweifle jedoch daran, sie in der eigenen Fraktion durchsetzen zu können.”

[16] In his comprehensive Schmidt biography, Hartmut Soell (a historian and former SPD politician) implicitly suggested—despite a careful wording—that Schmidt was in favor of the tank deal. Hartmut Soell, Helmut Schmidt. Vol. II: 1969 bis heute. Macht und Verantwortung (Munich, 2008), pp. 832, 837. Soell did not use or refer to the AdsD files quoted in notes 13, 14, and 15 of this article.

[17] For the various economic interests of West Germany in Saudi Arabia at the time see “Sorge um die goldene Zukunft am Golf,” Der Spiegel, 18/1981, 27 April 1981.

[18] For the delivery of AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia by the Reagan administration—announced in 1981—and the previous sale of F-15 fighter jets under President Carter see Rachel Bronson, Thicker Than Oil. America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia (Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 158-163. The American arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia led to fierce conflicts between the U.S. government and Israel as well as American Jewish organizations at the time.

[19] Deutscher Bundestag, Stenographischer Bericht, 9. Wahlperiode, 19. Sitzung, 30.1.1981, pp. 820-823.

[20] AAPD 1981, Doc. 119, Gespräch des Bundeskanzlers Schmidt mit dem saudi-arabischen Kronprinzen Fahd in Riad, 28.4.1981, p. 670.

[21] Ambassador Meroz confirmed in principle, after “discreet inquiries in different directions”, the content of the “Spiegel” article of 5.1.1981 [see note 11], according to which Schmidt was in favor of the Saudi tank deal, ISA, FM-6830/4, Bonn/Meroz to Ministry/Sasson, Subject: West German arms for Saudi Arabia (Hebrew), 6.1.1981, Nr. 25. For a quotation by Horst Ehmke, then deputy head of the SPD parliamentary group, on Schmidt’s willingness to sell tanks to Saudi Arabia: ISA, FM‑8900/16, Bonn/Ha-Zir to Ministry/Meroz, Subject: Arms for Saudi Arabia/Conversation with Ehmke (Hebrew), 11.11.1981, Nr. 103.

[22] ISA, FM-6830/5, Washington to Ministry/Director-General, Subject: Conversation Ambassador-Veliotes (Hebrew), 22.4.1981, Nr. 392.

[23] “Deutsche Panzer nach Saudi-Arabien?” [as note 11]; for the Israeli press see e.g., “German arms for the Arabs” (Hebrew), Haaretz, 7 January 1981; “Bonn whereto?” (Hebrew), Yediot Achronot, 27 January 1981.

[24] In 2013, Schmidt published a much-noticed appeal to curb Germany’s arms exports. The article included the statement: “I still oppose delivering tanks to Saudi Arabia.” Helmut Schmidt, “Bremst die Rüstungsexporte!” ZEIT Online, 19 December 2013, <>.

[25] For comments by the Israeli media see the summary of the German embassy in Tel Aviv: PAAA, B 36, 135.678, Botschaft der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in Israel, Vermerk, Zusammenfassung der Diskussion in den israelischen Medien gegen die Lieferung von Leopard-Panzern an Saudi-Arabien, 20.8.1981. For the Israeli parliament see Knesset Protocol, 429th session of the 9th Knesset, 4.3.1981, “Conclusions by the Security and Foreign Affairs Committee in regard to German weapons for Saudi Arabia” (Hebrew), p. 1070.

[26] Virtually denying any impact of Israel-related considerations on the decision-making process: Sabine Hepperle, Die SPD und Israel. Von der Großen Koalition 1966 bis zur Wende 1982 (Frankfurt a.M., 2000), p. 303; attaching importance both to the Israel and the general aspect: Shafir, “Helmut Schmidt” [as note 3], p. 306; citing a variety of motives for resistance in the SPD faction, with an emphasis on left wing attitudes: Inge Deutschkron, Israel und die Deutschen. Das besondere Verhältnis (Köln, 1983), p. 416; in contrast, giving more weight to concerns for Israel: Lily Gardner Feldman, The special relationship between West Germany and Israel (Boston, 1984), p. 222.

[27] For the development of Germany’s arms export policy see Michael Brzoska, “Rüstungsexportpolitik,” in Handbuch zur deutschen Außenpolitik, ed. Siegmar Schmidt/Gunther Hellmann/Reinhard Wolf (Wiesbaden, 2007), pp. 650-659.

[28] In 1977, the federal government had confidentially defined all countries that were part of the Israeli-Arab conflict—including Saudi Arabia, and also Israel—as belonging to an area of tension. BA, B 102/286428, Auswärtiges Amt an Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft, 10.3.1981.

[29] Such an expectation was expressed in: “Begründung dessen, was unvermeidlich ist. Die SPD-Fraktion, der Waffenexport und die Kernenergie,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 18 February 1981.

[30] Wehner was highly esteemed by Yochanan Meroz, Israeli ambassador in Bonn from 1974 until 1981, see Yohanan Meroz, In schwieriger Mission. Als Botschafter Israels in Bonn (Berlin, 1986), pp. 62f.

[31] See Meroz’ report for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, classified as “top secret”: ISA, FM-6830/4, Bonn/Meroz to Ministry/Sasson, Subject: Tanks for Saudi Arabia (Hebrew), 21.1.1981, Nr. 201.

[32] PAAA, B 150, 1981, VS-Bd. 10404 (422), Aufzeichnung des Ministerialdirigenten Freiherr von Stein, 30.9.1981, p. 3 (“Israel-Klausel”); PAAA, B 150, 1982, VS-Bd. 11274 (220), Aufzeichnung des Ministerialdirektors Fischer, 19.3.1982, p. 4 (“Israel-Erklärung”).

[33] Original text: “BM [Bundesminister] Genscher möchte festgehalten wissen, daß bei Abwägung unserer Gesamtinteressen auch die geschichtliche Verantwortung der Deutschen gegenüber dem jüdischen Volk berücksichtigt wird. Der Bundeskanzler stellt hierzu ausdrücklich allgemeines Einverständnis fest.” PAAA, B 150, 1982, VS-Bd. 10407 (422), Aufzeichnung des Staatssekretärs Lautenschlager, 10.12.1982. This document includes a detailed excerpt from the minutes of the BSR meeting on 3.3.1982. The original minutes of this BSR meeting are—to the author’s best knowledge—not available, as BSR minutes are generally not declassified. For another quotation of the protocol note (which is not explicitly called “protocol note” or “Israel clause” here) see: AAPD 1982, Doc. 330, Aufzeichnung des Ministerialdirektors Fischer, 6.12.1982, p. 1712.

[34] AAPD 1983, Doc. 159, Aufzeichnung des Ministerialdirektors Fischer, 27.5.1983, p. 838. In this detailed paper, Per Fischer, Head of the Economic Department of the Foreign Office (and a former German ambassador to Israel), made a strong case against deliveries of heavy tanks, especially the Leopard 2, to Saudi Arabia. He put an emphasis on the potential harm for German-Israeli relations, referring explicitly to the BSR protocol note. Another basic (and not Israel-related) counter-argument he used was the prospect that countries worldwide would quote a German-Saudi tank deal as a precedence and demand similar supplies, which would be undesirable for Bonn in terms of its general arms export policy (p. 839f). For the various references to the Israel clause in the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs (BMWi), which was formally in charge of the approval of arms exports, see e.g., BA, B 10/286457, Referat IV B 4 (Engel/Daase) an Minister [Lambsdorff], 26.5.1983.

[35] BA, B 102/286457, BMWi, Referat IV B 4 [gez. Engel], an Referat IV B 5, 17.5.1983, 6. Tagung der deutsch-saudischen Wirtschaftskommission am 4./5.6.1983. Of course, the refusal of the “big” tank deal by the Schmidt government (and later also by the Kohl government) was not the end of all German arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Later in the 1980s, this issue still burdened German-Israeli relations, see e.g., “Waffenexport: ‘Ungeheuer viele Möglichkeiten,’” Der Spiegel, 42/1985, 14 October 1985, pp. 17-25.

[36] See the first mention of the future Israel clause (here called “Israelvorbehalt”) in a handwritten note by Genscher in: PAAA, B 150, 1981, VS-Bd. 10404 (422), Aufzeichnung des Ministerialdirigenten Freiherr von Stein, 24.9.1981.

[37] At the same time, the ban to deliver weapons of war to “areas of tension” was substituted by the—much less restrictive—stipulation that arms exports outside NATO “must not contribute to an increase of existing tensions.” For the wording of the arms export guidelines of 1982 see Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung, Bulletin Nr. 38, 5.5.1982, “Politische Grundsätze der Bundesregierung für den Export von Kriegswaffen und sonstigen Rüstungsgütern. Beschluß der Bundesregierung vom 28.4.1982,” available online at: <>. The guidelines of 1982 were valid until the year 2000, when the federal government under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder replaced them by new ones, see Brzoska, “Rüstungsexportpolitik” [as note 27], p. 653f.

[38] According to interpretations in German media—which was unaware of the Israel clause—with the new arms exports guidelines a German-Saudi tank deal would be possible, see “Jetzt steht die Tür sperrangelweit offen,” Der Spiegel, 19/1982, 10 May 1982, p. 20.

[39] This conclusion is based on the author’s evaluation of the following Israel Foreign Ministry files, which cover the preoccupation of the ministry and the embassy with West Germany’s arms export policy toward Saudi Arabia in the years 1981-1983: ISA, FM 6830/4, FM 6830/5, FM 6830/6, FM 8900/15, FM 8900/16, FM 8936/1, FM 8936/2, FM 8936/3, FM 8936/4. For a specific dealing with Germany’s 1982 arms export guidelines by Israeli diplomats—which shows their lack of knowledge about the secret protocol note—see e.g., Daniel Megiddo, Department Europe, to Seev Sufot, Deputy Director-General Europe, Subject: FRG/Guidelines for arms exports (Hebrew), 23.12.1983, Nr. 74.

[40] Hildegard Hamm-Brücher, then Minister of State in the German Foreign Office, told Israeli ambassador Meroz—according to his report—on 12 February 1981 that Genscher was “no driving force” behind a possible Saudi tank deal, ISA, FM‑6830/4, Bonn/Meroz to Ministry/Sasson, Subject: Saudi Arabia (Hebrew), 13.2.1981, Nr. 117. One month later, Meroz was told by Johannes Rau (SPD), then Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, that Genscher had by now “withdrawn his initial support” for the tank delivery, ISA, FM-6830/5, Bonn/Meroz to Ministry/Sasson, Subject: Tanks for Saudi Arabia (Hebrew), 12.3.1981, Nr. 90. To Genscher’s stance cf. Wolffsohn, German-Saudi Arabian Arms Deals [as note 5], p. 78.

[41] See Genscher’s speech in the parliament: Deutscher Bundestag, Stenographischer Bericht, 17. Sitzung, 28.1.1981, p. 658; see also Genscher’s declaration about the agreement of the FDP Parliamentary Group in the Bundestag about the future arms export policy: fdk Tagesdienst, Pressedienst der Bundestagsfraktion der FDP, 62/81, Bonn, 27.1.1981. The formula which Genscher used here included—unlike the later BSR protocol note—an explicit acknowledgement of “Israel’s security interests.”

[42] Michael Wolffsohn, Ewige Schuld? 40 Jahre deutsch-jüdisch-israelische Beziehungen (Munich/Zürich, 1988), pp. 40-43; with the same tenor: Josef Joffe, “Reflections on German policy in the Middle East,” in Germany and the Middle East. Patterns and Prospects, ed. Shahram Chubin (New York, 1992), pp. 195-209 (203).

[43] Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung, Material für die Presse [Interview von Bundeskanzler Helmut Schmidt in der ZDF-Sendung “Bonner Perspektiven” am 26.4.1981], Bonn, 26.4.1981, p. 2. Original text: “Nein, wir lassen uns das nicht von einem anderen Staat oder von der Regierung eines anderen Staates vorschreiben, was wir tun und lassen […].”

[44] “Deutsche und Juden: Kniefall wiederholen?” Der Spiegel, 20/1981, 5 November 1981, p. 28.

[45] Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung, Bulletin Nr. 40, “Zum Stand der deutsch-arabischen Beziehungen. Fernsehdiskussion mit dem Bundeskanzler,” 6 May 1981, pp. 341-347.

[46] Helmut Schmidt, “Wahrhaftigkeit und Toleranz,” in Nahum Goldmann/Werner Nachmann/Helmut Schmidt, Mahnung und Verpflichtung. Ansprachen anlässlich der Gedenkfeier zum 9. November 1938 in der Großen Synagoge in Köln am 9. November 1978, ed. Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung (Bonn, 1978), pp. 23-35 (33 on “self-determination”). On Schmidt’s notion of Germany’s responsibility for peace in the Middle East, without a special relationship to Israel, see Lily Gardner Feldman, Germany’s Foreign Policy of Reconciliation. From Enmity to Amity (Lanham u.a., 2012), p. 39.

[47] In his later life, Schmidt made conflicting statements on that matter. See Helmut Schmidt, Weggefährten. Erinnerungen und Reflexionen (Berlin, 1998), p. 339 (acknowledging “our historical responsibility toward the Jews of the world and thus toward Israel”), compared to Helmut Schmidt/Fritz Stern, Unser Jahrhundert. Ein Gespräch (Munich, 2010), p. 50 (“Germany has no responsibility for Israel”).

[48] Quoted from Wolffsohn, German-Saudi Arabian Arms Deals [as note 5], p. 86.

[49] BA, B 136/23369: Der Bundesminister der Finanzen, Staatssekretär Karl Otto Pöhl, an Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft, Staatssekretär Detlev Carsten Rohwedder, 14.7.1975; AdsD, Depositum Helmut Schmidt, 1/HSAA007133: Bundeskanzler Helmut Schmidt an Bundesminister des Auswärtigen Hans-Dietrich Genscher, 4.3.1976; BA, B 102/272687: BMWi, Referat V B 6, 2.6.1980, Übersichtsvermerk.

[50] Generally on the issue of West German development aid for Israel until the Schmidt era see Lily Gardner Feldman, The special relationship [as note 26], pp. 100-111. For the discussions about a discontinuation of these payments see e.g., AdsD, Depositum Helmut Schmidt, 1/HSAA009002, Bundesminister Genscher an Bundeskanzler Schmidt, 27.11.1974; 1/HSAA009113, Rainer Offergeld, Bundesminister für Wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit, an Bundeskanzler Helmut Schmidt, 25.6.1979.

[51] AdsD, Depositum Helmut Schmidt, 1/HSAA006567, Vermerk Bundeskanzler Helmut Schmidt, 18.4.1977; PAAA, B 150, 1977, VS-Bd. 14058 (010), Gespräch des Bundeskanzlers Schmidt mit König Juan Carlos, p. 3.

[52] AdsD, Depositum Helmut Schmidt, 1/HSAA007456, Vermerk über das Gespräch des Bundeskanzlers mit dem Bundespräsidenten [Scheel] am 28.7.1978.

[53] On the repercussions of this debate on German-Israeli relations see Meroz, In schwieriger Mission [as note 30], pp. 204-212; Hubert Leber, “Zwischen Protest und Diplomatie. Israels Reaktion auf die deutsche Verjährungsdebatte von 1979,” Lecture at the Institut für Zeitgeschichte, Berlin, 23 January 2013 (unpublished).

[54] Schmidt about Dayan: Schmidt, Weggefährten [as note 47], p. 347f. Meroz’ not uncritical, but basically rather positive testimony of Schmidt: Meroz, In schwieriger Mission [as note 30], pp. 96f. According to Soell, Helmut Schmidt [as note 16], p. 1047, Meroz was—next to French President Giscard—the only foreign personality to whom Schmidt confided during his tenure as chancellor the Jewish origin of his paternal grandfather (which became publicly known only in the mid-1980s).

[55] Schmidt, Weggefährten [as note 47], p. 337.

[56] AAPD 1971, Doc. 205, Aufzeichnung des Staatssekretärs Freiherr von Braun, 11.6.1971, p. 953; for Schmidt’s early pro-Israel stance see also Shafir, “Helmut Schmidt” [as note 3], pp. 300ff.

[57] For the European policy toward the Middle East conflict in the 1970s and 1980s see Rory Miller, Inglorious Disarray. Europe, Israel and the Palestinians since 1967 (London, 2011).

[58] Carole Fink, “‘The Most Difficult Journey of All’: Willy Brandt’s Trip to Israel in June 1973,” The International History Review 37 (2015) 3, pp. 503-518; Shafir, “Helmut Schmidt” [as note 3], p. 303.

[59] Fink, “Willy Brandt’s Trip to Israel in June 1973” [as note 58], pp. 503f.

[60] Ilan Peleg, Begin’s Foreign Policy 1977-1983. Israel’s Move to the Right (New York, 1987), pp. 95-175.

[61] Miller, Inglorious Disarray [as note 57], pp. 70-75.

[62] For Schmidt’s discontent about the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt of 1978: Helmut Schmidt, Menschen und Mächte (Berlin, 1987), pp. 273f; see also AAPD 1978, Doc. 278, Gespräch des Bundeskanzlers Schmidt mit dem israelischen Botschafter Meroz, 26.9.1978. Schmidt on his relationship with Sadat: Schmidt, Weggefährten [as note 47], p. 339-347.

[63] AAPD 1977, Doc. 337, Botschafter Schütz, Tel Aviv, an das Auswärtige Amt, pp. 1613-1617 (see also note 16, p. 1617); Shlomo Nakdimon, “German Ambassador asked personalities in Likud: Is deterioration in relations of our countries to be expected?” (Hebrew), Yediot Achronot, 8 June 1977; Interviews by the author with Josi Hadas (then official in Israel’s Foreign Ministry), 13 May 2012 in Mevasseret Zion, with Moshe Meron (then Likud MP and founder of the Israeli-German Parliamentary Group in the Knesset), 17 May 2012 in Ramat Gan, and with Zalman Shoval (then Likud MP), 3 June 2013 in Tel Aviv.

[64] AdsD, Depositum Helmut Schmidt, 1/HSAA006795, Herrn Bundeskanzler n.R. zur Kenntnis, 22.8.1977; AAPD 1977, Doc. 339, Gespräch des Bundeskanzlers Schmidt mit dem israelischen Außenminister Dayan, 28.11.1977, pp. 1621f. Begin reconfirmed the invitation for Schmidt—in a meeting with Annemarie Renger, Vice President of the Bundestag—even after the Schmidt/Begin crisis of May 1981, see BA, B 136/30567, Bundeskanzleramt, Referat 213, Vermerk, 3.11.1981, p. 2.

[65] In contrast to Chancellor Schmidt, his successor Kohl was willing to visit Israel under Begin. However, Kohl’s journey to Jerusalem, scheduled for early September 1983, was cancelled at the last minute due to Begin’s resignation as prime minister, “Späte Geburt,” Der Spiegel 36/1983, 5 September 1983, p. 35.

[66] AAPD 1978, Doc. 321, Gespräch des Bundeskanzler Schmidt mit dem ägyptischen Vizepräsidenten Mubarak, 24.10.1978, p. 1582 (Schmidt: He had postponed the visit to Israel up to now, “so as not to give the impression of a political support for Begin”); see also AAPD 1980, Doc. 179, Gespräch des Bundeskanzlers Schmidt mit dem Vorsitzenden der Jewish Claims Conference, Goldmann, 19.6.1980, p. 934 (Schmidt about a possible visit to Israel: “Under no circumstances, as long as the settlement policy [of Israel in the Palestinian territories, H.L.] continues.”).

[67] AAPD 1979, Doc. 261, Gespräch des Bundeskanzlers Schmidt mit dem israelischen Außenminister Dayan, 10.9.1979, p. 1298.

[68] PAAA, B 36, 119.875, Auswärtiges Amt, Abteilung 3/Meyer-Landrut an Herrn Bundesminister [Genscher], Betr.: Besuch des Bundeskanzlers in Israel, 20.9.1978 (and other documents in this file).

[69] Recommendation by Schütz on 15 May 1979, quoted from AAPD 1979, Doc. 134, Gespräch des Bundeskanzlers Schmidt mit Kronprinz Fahd, 14.5.1979, p. 615, note 15.

[70] Miller, Inglorious Disarray [as note 57], pp. 86f, 92f.

[71] Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Erinnerungen (Berlin, 1995), p. 220.

[72] A draft of the document included—as possible options—an endorsement for the creation of a Palestinian state and the demand for a “participation” (not just “association”) of the PLO in peace negotiations; two positions that were eventually abandoned: BA, B 136/17844, Entwurf einer Nahost-Erklärung der Neun, Letzter Stand, erarbeitet auf Sonder-PK Nahost am 5.6.1980. See also in the same file: Entwurf einer Nahost-Erklärung der Neun, Expertenentwurf, basierend auf franz. Vorschlag (here the “participation of the PLO” not only being an option).

[73] BA, B 136/17844, Auswärtiges Amt, Referat 310, 10.6.1980, Nahost, p. 2.

[74] Ibid., p. 3. See also for the German role on “renunciation of force”: BA, B 136/11818, Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung, Unkorrigiertes Manuskript, Pressekonferenz in Venedig (Genscher), 13.6.1980; BA, B 136/11818, Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung, Briefing: EG-Rat in Venedig, EPZ-Thematik (Sudhoff), 10.6.1980, p. 2.

[75] BA, B 136/17844, Auswärtiges Amt, Referat 310, 10.6.1980, Nahost, p. 3.

[76] Hepperle, Die SPD und Israel [as note 26], p. 291.

[77] Genscher, Erinnerungen [as note 71], 220; Hepperle, Die SPD und Israel [as note 26], pp. 222-225.

[78] BA, B 136/33755, Auswärtiges Amt, Referat 310, 4.3.1980, Stellungnahmen und Initiativen der Bundesregierung zum Selbstbestimmungsrecht des palästinensischen Volkes und zu seiner Verwirklichung, p. 9.

[79] Markus A. Weingardt, Deutsche Israel- und Nahostpolitik. Die Geschichte einer Gratwanderung seit 1949 (Frankfurt a.M., 2002), pp. 285f; Hepperle, Die SPD und Israel [as note 26], p. 264; AAPD 1978, Doc. 261, Gespräch des Bundeskanzlers Schmidt mit Präsident Assad, 12.9.1978, pp. 1311-1319 (1314).

[80] See, for the year 1979, the internal comparative survey by the German Foreign Office: BA, B136-16546, Auswärtiges Amt, Referat 310, 22.10.1979, Beziehungen europäischer Staaten und der USA zur PLO; Abdallah Frangi, Der Gesandte. Mein Leben für Palästina. Hinter den Kulissen der Nahost-Politik (Munich, 2011), p. 171.

[81] Frangi, Der Gesandte [as note 80], p. 172.

[82] Ibid., p. 190.

[83] BA, B 136/16725, Auswärtiges Amt, Referat 310, 5.7.1979, Stellungnahme zu der Entschließung der Deutschen Gruppe der Parlamentarischen Vereinigung für Euro-Arabische Zusammenarbeit zum Nahostkonflikt.

[84] Shlomo Shpiro, “Intelligence Services and Foreign Policy: German-Israeli Intelligence and Military Cooperation,” German Politics 11 (2002) 1, pp. 23-42 (34).

[85] On the contacts between the German Bundeskriminalamt and the PLO: “Geheimdienste: Papier vom Konditor,” Der Spiegel, 8/1980, 18 February 1980, pp. 36-41; both on German-Israeli anti-terror cooperation and West German contacts with the PLO for the purpose of terrorism prevention: Tim Geiger, “Westliche Anti-Terrorismus-Diplomatie im Nahen Osten,” in Terrorismusbekämpfung in Westeuropa. Demokratie und Sicherheit in den 1970er und 1980er Jahren, ed. Johannes Hürter (Munich, 2014), pp. 259-288.

[86] Such an expectation was expressed by SPD Deputy Chairman Hans-Jürgen Wischnewski in the above-quoted coalition talk on 12 December 1980 [see note 13], and also by the head of the responsible division in the Federal Chancellery, see BA, B 136/17226, Referat 213, VLR I Franke, an Bundeskanzler, 26.1.1981, Betr.: Peres-Besuch; for Israel’s categorical rejection of a possible compensation deal see the internal instruction: ISA, FM-6830/4, Ministry to Bonn, Washington, and others, Subject: Tanks for Saudi Arabia (Hebrew), 12.1.1981, Nr. 683, point 6.

[87] For example, Begin accused Schmidt wrongly that he was personally present at the execution of the conspirators of 20 July 1944, “Falsches mit Falschem vermischt. Begins Vorwürfe gegen den Weltkrieg-Leutnant Helmut Schmidt,” Der Spiegel 20/1981, 11 May 1981, p. 23.

[88] Shlomo Shafir, Ambiguous Relations. The American Jewish Community and Germany Since 1945 (Detroit, 1999), pp. 278; for an internal report about Schmidt’s partly confrontational meeting with representatives of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on 21 May 1981: ISA, FM-6830/6, Washington to Ministry, Subject: Meeting Schmidt – Presidents’ Conference (Hebrew), 22.5.1981, Nr. 340.

[89] Josef Thesing, “25 Jahre Kooperation: KAS und AJC. Einige Gedanken zum Beginn der Zusammenarbeit mit jüdischen Organisationen,” in Deidre Berger/Lars Hänsel, A Life-Changing Experience. 25 Jahre KAS/AJC-Programm, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung e.V., Berlin / American Jewish Committee, Berlin, 2005, p. 11-25 (16-19).

[90] Schmidt in a statement to the SPD Parteirat in September 1978, with a reference to Bonn’s foreign policy: “The memory of Auschwitz will, contrary to our previous expectations, experiences and assumptions, play a bigger role in the future again.” Quoted from Hepperle, Die SPD und Israel [as note 26], p. 271. On the German reception of the American Holocaust memory: Jacob Eder, Holocaust Angst. The Federal Republic of Germany and Holocaust Memory in the United States since the 1970s (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

[91] Expressing this thought explicitly: AAPD 1983, Doc. 159, Aufzeichnung des Ministerialdirektors Fischer, 27.5.1983, pp. 837f.

[92] ISA, FM-8936/1, Bonn/Ben‑Ari to Ministry/Europe 1, Subject: Saudi Arabia/Military Equipment (Hebrew), 5.1.1982, Nr. 25.

[93] See AAPD 1983, Doc. 159, Aufzeichnung des Ministerialdirektors Fischer, 27.5.1983, pp. 837f.

[94] AAPD 1981, Doc. 310, Gespräch des Bundeskanzlers Schmidt mit dem saudi-arabischen Kronprinzen Fahd, 28.10.1981, p. 1652.

[95] PAAA, B 150, 1981, Bundeskanzleramt, AZ: 21-30100 (56), Bd. 58 (Ablichtung), Gespräch des Bundeskanzlers Schmidt mit dem Vorsitzenden der Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Squadron, 7.7.1981, p. 3.

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.

Hubert Leber

Philipps University of Marburg

Hubert Leber was a Reconciliation Fellow in 2015. He is a Doctoral Candidate at Philipps University of Marburg and University of Haifa. While at AICGS, he will be working on “The Relations between West Germany and Israel in the Begin Era (1977-1983). International Politics and Historical Memory.”