German-Israeli Ties From Bitter Enemies to Close Friends

Today marks 50 years of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel, an unlikely bond that began 20 years after World War II. But the now “special relationship” was far from friendly when the two forged ties at the height of the Cold War.
Reuven Rivlin, the president of Israel, and Joachim Gauck, the president of Germany, mark 50 years of official relations between the two countries at a ceremony on Monday in Berlin.

For many Israelis in 1965, the tighter relationship with Germany came too soon, just 20 years after the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of around six million Jews.

Thousands took to the streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to protest what they viewed as an attempt to “wash the guilt of the Shoah with money,” recalled historian Rafel Seligmann, who was born in Israel and is publisher of the quarterly Jewish Voice from Germany.

Among the protestors was Reuven Rivlin, the future and today current president of Israel.

Fifty years later, Mr. Rivlin, a genteel vegetarian loved in Israel for his sense of fairness, spent three days in what was once the capital of Adolf Hitler's Germany to laud one of the world's most unlikely post-war friendships, a bond between former perpetrator and former victim that has weathered the 1972 terrorist attacks in Munich, Germany's refusal to let the U.S. resupply the Israelis in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and rising frustration in modern Germany over the fate of the Palestinians.

“The strong and deep friendship we celebrate this year, between Israel and Germany, was made possible by Germany taking responsibility for the crimes of the past,” Mr. Rivlin said Monday in Berlin on the eve of Tuesday's 50th anniversary of Israeli-German official relations at a dinner hosted by Joachim Gauck, the German president.

Mr. Rivlin's comment followed an announcement that Israel had agreed to purchase four German-made submarines to help secure its Mediterranean gas rigs, with heavy financial support from Berlin. The German government, as part of its atonement for the Nazi Holocaust, has often helped pay for the cost of military equipment for Israel in the past.

It doesn’t even cover a quarter of the property the Nazis stole from Jewish people during the war. Yehiam Weitz, History Professor at Haifa University

“Israelis and Germans are meeting one another outside the framework of political life with countless opportunities, including here in Berlin with artists and young students working to enrich this city, the city in which German-Jewish culture long prospered," Mr. Gauck said, adding "it is good to hear Hebrew in the streets.”

The path to German-Israeli diplomatic ties is long and tangled.

Years would pass before they would even become a topic of discussion in the state of Israel, which was founded in 1948 shortly after World War II. For those who survived the Holocaust and started a new life there, Germany represented all that was evil. The young democratic state on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean boycotted everything made in Germany, banned travel to the country and shunned the use of the German language in public – even though it was the native language of many of its new citizens.


Quelle: dpa
The opening day of the Nuremberg war trial of Nazi criminals on November 20, 1945. The Nazi regime killed an estimated 6 million Jews during World War II.
(Source: dpa)


But the icy relations began to thaw when Israelis began to talk about reparation. Toward the end of the decade, as Israel struggled economically under the flood of refugees pouring into the country, West Germany was slowing recovering, beginning to lay the foundation for its post-war “Wirtschaftschaftswunder” or economic miracle.

Chancellor Konrad Adenauer reached out to Israel for the first time in 1949, saying in an interview that West Germany should pay Jews 10 million deutsche marks as compensation for the Nazi crimes.

That statement set in motion a wave of high-level secret meetings between the two states. In 1951, Mr. Adenauer agreed to negotiate a compensation payment beginning at $1.5 billion.

The amount, seen by many as generous in the young German federal republic, angered many of the victims of the Nazi expropriation of Jewish property, as well as families of the victims of the genocide.

“It doesn’t even cover a quarter of the property the Nazis stole from Jewish people during the war,” said Yehiam Weitz, a history professor at Haifa University, in an interview with Handelsblatt Global Edition. The talk of reparations sparked massive demonstrations amid the widespread poverty that affected much of Israel.

In 1953, West Germany ratified the so-called Luxembourg Agreement, named after the city in which it was signed. The country agreed to pay the state of Israel a compensation of 3 billion deutsche marks, the equivalent of $700 million at the time, in addition to a personal monthly compensation to Holocaust survivors. As well as money, the compensation included materials, machinery and cars.

“As part of the agreement, Israel funded a special department with consular duties,” Isashar Ben Yaakov, a member of an Israeli delegation sent to Munich in 1948 to deal with Jewish refugees, told Handelsblatt Global Edition in an interview. He became a member of the official compensation delegation in Cologne. The group eventually helped ease travel restrictions between the nations.

“Because Israeli passports were not valid in Germany, we provided visas and help for Israeli citizens who wanted to come to Germany and the same for Germans who wanted to come to Israel,” Mr. Ben Yaakov said.

At that time, Israel offered to make the relationship official, said Martin Kloke, a Berlin-based political scientist, editor and publicist who has been dealing with German-Israeli relations for more than 25 years.

“But the Federal Republic of Germany (former West Germany) was hesitant because it feared Arab countries would recognize the German Democratic Republic (former East Germany) as a state if West Germany established official relations with Israel, and that’s something the Israelis wanted to avoid at all cost,” he told Handelsblatt Global Edition.

Video: Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin, receives official state welcome in Germany at Bellevue Palace.

The cold war rivalry between the two Germanys accelerated West Germany's recognition of Israel, and came only after Egypt moved to diplomatically recognize the East German communist state, said Moshe Zimmermann, the director of the Richard Koebner Minerva Center for German History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“Egypt threatened to acknowledge East Germany as a state if Germany developed diplomatic relationship with Israel,” Mr. Zimmermann said in an interview. “Only after Walter Ulbricht (the East German leader) was accepted by Gamal Abdel Nasser (the Egyptian president) as the official head of state by East Germany did West German agree to create diplomatic ties” with Israel.

The official era of post-war diplomatic relations began on May 12, 1965, when Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard officially announced diplomatic relations between their two countries.

The relationship began with a bumpy start. Israelis protested Germany’s first ambassador to Israel, Rolf Pauls, an ex-Wehrmacht solider, and demanded his replacement. But Mr. Pauls stayed.

Then came the Six Days War in 1967, when Egypt, Jordan and Syria, aided by other Arab countries, went to war with Israel. Amid the conflict, Israel's relations with Germany took a roller-coaster ride that continues to this very day.

Israel’s existence at the time was threatened by its Arab neighbors.

“In Germany for the first time, there was broad support for Israel with public protests,” Mr. Zimmermann told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “But when Israel emerged as an occupation power, support shifted. Israel changed from David to Goliath – from the underdog to the occupying force.”

Israel won that war, but the effects of its victory linger to this day.

Israel occupied the Golan Heights from Syria, the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza strip from Egypt, and took East Jerusalem and the West Bank of the Jordan River from the Jordanians. The post-war shift was referred to in Israel as the reunification of Jerusalem.

From a humanitarian point of view, the terrorist attack was terrible but it boosted solidarity between the countries. Joschka Fischer, Former German Foreign Minister

The Munich Olympics in 1972 put German-Israeli relations to perhaps its hardest test.

The Israeli Olympic team was kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists and died during a rescue attempt by German police. But the attacks, which had the potential to weaken ties between Germans and Israelis, did just the opposite, said Joschka Fischer, who was Germany's foreign minister from 1998 to 2005, in an interview with Handelsblatt Global Edition. “From a humanitarian point of view, the terrorist attack was terrible but it boosted solidarity between the countries.''

The Yom Kippur War in 1973 was another test for German-Israeli relations. Israel found itself under attack on two fronts, by Egyptians to the south and Syrians in the north. The United States offered swift support with weapons stored at its military bases in Germany, but Chancellor Willy Brandt, a Social Democrat, initially refused to allow arms on German soil to be transported to Israel. He was adamant about maintaining West Germany's post-war pacifist role, less than 30 years after World War II, and sought to remain neutral in the crisis.


The German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, third from left, and the Israeli foreign minister, Moshe Sharatt, during preliminary talks in 1952 to establish formal diplomatic relations, which weren't begun until 1965.


Mr. Brandt’s attempt to block the weapons shipment dented relations with Israel. The relationship was further strained by Mr. Brandt's refusal to accept then-prime minster Golda Meir’s request that he mediate a peace process between Egypt and Israel, according to Michael Wolffsohn, an emeritus professor at the Military University in Munich.

The German-Israeli relationship largely languished under Mr. Brandt's successor, Helmut Schmidt, also a member of the SPD.

But relations took a turn for the better under Mr. Schmidt's successor, Helmut Kohl, a conservative Christian Democratic. During the Gulf War in 1991, Mr. Kohl, who in the meantime had become the chancellor of a unified Germany, approved assistance to Israel, including the gift of two submarines and later subsidized the country’s purchase of four more.

Relations chilled again under Mr. Kohl's successor, Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, who saw Israel as a “colonialist and imperialist player” because of its continued construction of settlements in Palestinian territory, Mr. Wolffsohn said. They remained chilly despite the support of Mr. Fischer, a member of Germany's Green Party, who served as Mr. Schröder's foreign minister in a coalition between their two parties from 1998 to 2005.

In 2005, speaking before the United Nations on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Mr. Fischer described Israel’s right to exist as a “non-negotiable, fundamental tenet of Germany’s foreign policies.”


Quelle: dpa
A rally by the neo-Nazi German NPD party last Friday in Berlin to protest the city's capitulation to Soviet and Allied troops at the end of World War II. The protester on the right waves a flag bearing the former colors of Nazi Germany.
(Source: dpa)


Today, Israelis see in German Chancellor Angela Merkel a close but critical friend. Israel was surprised when under her leadership Germany abstained, rather than siding with Israel, in a United Nations General Assembly vote in late 2012 to upgrade Palestine to a non-member observer state. The U.S. and Israel both opposed the elevation of Palestine to the new status without a lasting peace in place and without a public admission by the Palestinians' political leadership of Israel's right to exist.

Ms. Merkel remains critical of Israel's settlement policy, which, like most other world leaders and the United Nations, she considers illegal under international law. She has not minced words on the issue in the past.

Israelis see in German Chancellor Angela Merkel a close but critical friend.

Last year, then-Israeli president Shimon Peres conferred Israel’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Distinction, on Ms. Merkel “for her unwavering commitment to Israel’s security and the fight against anti-Semitism and racism.”

Yoram Ben-Zeev, a former ambassador to Germany, has said he doesn’t think “Israel has a better friend than Angela Merkel in the whole world.”

Against the background of the Holocaust, Ms. Merkel has referred to the 50th anniversary as an opportunity to “look ahead without forgetting the past.”

Yet the present is cause for concern. A study by the Bertelsmann Foundation shows that Germans are significantly more critical of Israel than vice versa: 48 percent say that their opinion of Israel is poor as opposed to only 36 percent who have a positive opinion. Among Jewish Israelis, the image of Germany is positive: 68 percent have a good opinion of the country; only 24 percent have a poor opinion.


A masked terrorist at the Munich Olympic games in 1972. The killing of Israeli athletes during a police rescue operation strained German-Israeli relations.


The perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has increasingly dominated how Germans view Israel as a whole.

“Of course, there will be a change because the younger generation has a different life,” Mr. Fischer said, adding that the relationship will continue to evolve. “The new generation will have the same responsibilities toward Israel. I’m pretty optimistic about that.”


Tal Rimon is an Israeli and an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. She worked previously at Israel's Channel 10 television station in Tel Aviv. Franziska Roscher contributed to the story. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]