Israel could be headed for choppy waters in its relations with Germany, its most important ally in Europe. According to an April 29 report in Der Spiegel, Germany’s most prestigious and authoritative newsweekly, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s administration is losing patience with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government, and is beginning to reconsider its long-standing policy of automatic diplomatic backing for Jerusalem.
According to Der Spiegel, the German impatience stems from several irritants. One is continuing Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank. Another is growing doubt that Netanyahu genuinely seeks a two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, which Germany considers essential. A third is a belief that Netanyahu has been manipulating and exploiting — “instrumentalizing,” as one official put it — Germany’s support in order to advance policies that Germany opposes.
Although Der Spiegel didn’t put the tensions in a broader European context, it’s hard not to see the connections. The German rumblings are the latest tremor — and arguably the most alarming — in a pattern of seismic shocks that erode Israel’s standing in Europe, and often ricochet onto local Jewish communities. Other such shocks include the current uproar over anti-Semitism within the British Labour Party; the persistent string of terror attacks on Jewish targets in France and Belgium, and France’s repeated efforts to broker Israeli-Palestinian compromise despite Israeli objections, including a planned May 30 peace summit in Paris that Israel rejects. (It bears noting, though, that France is also credited with blocking a planned Palestinian effort to achieve a United Nations Security Council resolution on settlements and borders.)
Germany issued a lackluster denial of Der Spiegel’s report in a May 1 statement to Reuters from an unnamed government spokesman, widely reported in the Israeli media (see here and here). The spokesman said the “guidelines of German Middle East policy have not changed.”
In fact, Der Spiegel didn’t claim the guidelines had changed, but rather that frustration was mounting and change was possible. Moreover, Der Spiegel’s report included on-the-record interviews with several ranking German officials, including the chairman of the Bundestag foreign affairs committee and a senior ally of Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
The magazine also cited several unusual steps Germany had taken in recent months that distanced it from Israeli policy. The article began with a description of a February meeting between Merkel and Netanyahu in which she warned that his settlement policies were making a two-state peace agreement unlikely. The conversation was promptly reported in the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom as though Merkel backed his view that this is not the time for a Palestinian state. Merkel was furious, Der Spiegel said.
In January, the magazine said, Steinmeier uncharacteristically ignored a telephoned request from Netanyahu to soften a condemnation of settlements in an upcoming European Union resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And in mid-April, Merkel told Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas during a Berlin visit that she could “understand” why the Palestinians wanted to seek backing on statehood from the Security Council.
This isn’t just a problem for Israeli diplomacy. As we’ve learned from Britain’s recent experience with political anti-Semitism, and France’s with anti-Jewish terrorism, the European pattern of diplomatic erosion has tended to spread beyond Israel and hurt local Jewish communities as well. France and Britain are home to Europe’s two biggest Jewish communities. If the same pattern holds in Germany, trouble might be coming for the continent’s third-biggest Jewish community.
Europe is still Israel’s largest trading partner and favored travel destination. It’s also a primary reference point for the Jewish state in its self-image as an exemplar of Western culture and values. By and large, Europe’s economic and political elites still share that view of Israel. Most are also deeply concerned for the welfare of local Jewish communities, in part due to sensitivity over Europe’s long history of anti-Semitic persecution. Many believe the two issues are linked.
There’s a sense, widely shared among European politicians and diplomats but rarely acknowledged except in private, that continuing failure to ease tensions between Israel and its neighbors adds fuel to an explosive domestic crisis within European societies. As Europe’s Muslim population grows, conflicts proliferate between local Muslims, many of whom loathe Israel, and local Jews, who tend to be seen as Israel’s most unflinching defenders.
At the extreme end, anti-Israel hostility can translate into attacks on Jews as targets of convenience by relative handfuls of young Muslim extremists, mostly in France, Belgium and Sweden, who conflate local Jews with Israel. The number of such extremists is tiny, but as the continent’s Muslim population swells, so will the potential pool of extremists. Recruitment by the Islamic State group is aggravating the problem.
In Britain, where the Muslim population is far better integrated into mainstream society, some activists have allied themselves with the far left and brought hatred of Israel, often tinged with outright anti-Semitism, into mainstream campus, union and now Labour Party life.
As of May 2 the Labour Party had suspended at least five prominent members, including a member of Parliament, three city councilors and a former mayor, for extremist statements on Israel and Jews. All five appear to be Muslims.
And the conservative Telegraph newspaper reported May 2 that the party had “secretly” suspended 50 members in the past two months for the same reasons.
All this leaves European leaders trapped in a dilemma, caught between seemingly irreconcilable forces: on one hand, the need to protect Jewish communities from bigotry and attacks; on the other hand, the need to integrate their large and growing Muslim populations and to respect their rights — including the right to express their views, which all too often include virulent hatred of Israel and hostility toward Jews, Israel’s most faithful allies.
Concern about local intercommunal conflict is hardly the only or even main concern of European leaders as they try to balance sympathy for Israel with frustration over its policies. Their frustration is part of a widespread international alarm over the growing rigidity of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and the West Bank. Besides, European countries have their own diplomatic and economic interests.
Still, much of Europe’s elite believes that a more conciliatory Israeli public posture could help lessen resentment in the Muslim diaspora. What’s more, their frustration is sharpened by a belief that Israel could be easing its overall conflict with the Arab and Muslim world, and perhaps even enlisting countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in efforts to quell popular Muslim hostility, if it accepted the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative that has been on the table since 2002.
An agreement wouldn’t change the whole sorry picture or even most of it, neither in Europe nor in the collapsing Middle East. But it’s seen as one of the few solutions available in this puzzle, with a player who might be expected to cooperate. It’s frustrating, sometimes infuriating, that the player seems immovable.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).