"Reason of state": Germany’s support for Israel and its limits

Thorsten Benner

8 mins - 11 de Diciembre de 2023, 07:00

In March 2008, German chancellor Angela Merkel gave a speech to the Knesset outlining the core of Germany’s approach to Israel: 

"Each federal government and each chancellor before me were committed to the special historical responsibility of Germany for Israel’s security. This historical responsibility of Germany is part of the reason of state (Staatsräson) of my country. That means that Israel’s security is never negotiable for me as German chancellor".
15 years later, her successor Olaf Scholz invoked this very formula after Hamas’ massacre targeting civilians on Israeli soil on 7 October: "Israel’s security is German reason of state". Scholz added that "in this moment there can only be one place for Germany: the place by Israel’s side". The chancellor and foreign minister Baerbock travelled to Israel soon after the Hamas attacks to express solidarity. The very term "reason of state", however, leads to the impression that this solidarity is unconditional. Scholz added to this impression when at an EU summit in late October he stated he has "no doubt" that Israel will stick to international law when exercising its right to self-defense against Hamas: "Israel is a democratic state with very humanitarian principles that guide it". That sounds like a blank cheque of support for the policies of the Israeli government by Germany. However, that would be a misleading interpretation.

In 2001, right after 9/11, German chancellor Gerhard Schröder declared "unlimited solidarity" with the US. But the limits became clearly apparent when Schröder turned into one of the most vocal opponents of the Iraq war. Similarly, the limits of Germany’s support for Israel become clear in late October during a UN General Assembly vote on a resolution calling for a ceasefire that did not include a direct condemnation of Hamas and was passed with 120 votes in favor. Scholz and Baerbock agreed on Germany to abstain from the vote infuriating the Netanyahu government. Israel’s ambassador to Germany, Ron Prosor, said Germany’s abstention was "more than disappointing" and "morally wrong and history will judge this". Prosor pointedly reminded Berlin that "Germany’s ‘reason of state’ means actively standing with Israel, especially in difficult times". The UN vote made it clear why the "reason of state" formula is misleading and wrong. Germany’s Staatsräson is based on its own understanding of its national interest, not Israel’s. And that understanding led Germany to conclude it is better not to side with Israel in the UN vote. German diplomats had worked with the sponsor of the resolution, Jordan to improve the text. They were not fully satisfied with the result. But after working on changing the text they did not want to alienate Jordan, an important German partner in the region, by following Israel’s wishes and voting against the text. That non-Western countries overwhelmingly supported the resolution may have been another reason for Berlin to abstain. Scholz and Baerbock have spent a lot of energy trying to improve relations with the so-called "Global South". They may have had in mind to avoid giving further ammunition to charges of double standards by voting against a resolution that calls for a ceasefire. In contrast to his seeming certainty about Israel adhering to international law German chancellor Scholz in mid-November called out Israel for its policies in the West Bank: "We don't want any new settlements in the West Bank, no violence by settlers against the Palestinians in the West Bank". This past week, the German government has moved to support EU sanctions against radical settlers in the form of entry bans. Scholz reiterated Germany’s commitment to the two-state solution and said: "If some in Israeli politics distance themselves from this, we will not support them". On Saturday, Scholz called Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stressing "that more humanitarian aid must reach people in the Gaza Strip and this must happen on a reliable basis" while discussing "the necessary efforts for the greatest possible protection of civilians". Foreign minister Baerbock last week called on Israel to "adjust" its military campaign allowing for more aid to address"“catastrophic" situation of Gaza residents.

Over the past 40 years, Germany has consistently been one of the biggest financial supporters of the Palestinian territories. Defying calls from within some German political parties to stop all assistance to Gaza since Hamas may benefit Hamas, the German government has in fact expanded humanitarian support for Gaza over the past months. Due to public pressure the government has ordered a review of all programs in the Palestinian territories temporarily halting disbursements of some grants and sending inquisitive letters to grantees. But most of the funding is expected to continue after the review. While some protestors in Berlin chant the heinous slogan "Free Palestine from German guilt", Germany in fact continues to be a key supporter of the Palestinian territories.

It is safe to assume that neither Olaf Scholz nor his predecessor Angela Merkel trust Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet, compared to Spain, Ireland or Belgium, German leaders are publicly much less critical of the actions of Israel‘s far-right government. The reason for that is not that the German government fully buys into the narrative of the Israeli government that Israel‘s war against Hamas is "vital to the security of the democratic West". Europe is said to be Hamas' next target and therefore it is "better to fight your enemy on their territory rather than wait for them to come to you" which Israel is doing in Gaza — also for Europe. That narrative does not sound very credible to the ears of many German decision-makers. After all, it was Netanyahu's government that until recently saw Hamas in power in Gaza as a way to ensure that the two-state solution that is favored by Germany does not go anywhere. While many German decision-makers support the goal of ousting Hamas, they have doubts whether "eradicating Hamas" is a feasible goal and whether the Israeli government has any acceptable and feasible idea for post-Hamas rule of Gaza. In a similar vein, unlike what Die Zeit journalist Jörg Lau argues in a recent Guardian piece, support for the Netanyahu government is not based on the "deep shock" that the German foreign policy establishment suffered after 7 October when they realized that their bet on engagement with Iran had failed and that after Russia another cornerstone of German foreign policy had crumbled. To me, that does not seem to be the core of the analysis of key decision-makers. They are more likely to see 7 October as a result of Netanyahu's mistakes than as result of a failure of their own foreign policy. What explains the strong (but not unconditional) German support for Israel rather is the horrific nature of the 7 October attacks on Israeli civilians as well as the fact that the attacks shake the core of what the Israeli state is built for: providing a safe harbor for Jews so that never again they will be subject to the mass murder orchestrated by Germans during the Nazi years. For good reasons, this resonates with a lot of German decision-makers due to Germany‘s particular historical responsibility for Israel as a safe harbor for Jews worldwide. That particular sense of responsibility includes seeing it as inappropriate for Germany to be in the front line of criticism of the Israeli government. That is why Germany will not move first to for example criticize Israel for the number of civilians killed in Gaza. But as the US and others increase their criticism of Israel's conduct of the war and the lack of feasible endgame the German government might well echo that criticism as we have started to see in recent weeks. Expect Germany to oppose any possible Israeli plans to expel Palestinian population from Gaza or re-take direct control over Gaza after the end of the fighting. That in the end might contribute to somewhat greater EU unity. The UN General Assembly vote in October showed a European Union very much divided (as it often has been the case with regard to Middle East policy). Due to its special relationship with Israel Germany has a particular role to play in terms of forging an EU stance that is built on the realization that (as German foreign minister Baerbock put it) "all civilians lives matter in equal measure". Baerbock suggests taking steps together "so that Hamas can never again perpetrate such acts of terror. The rules of the UN Charter and international humanitarian law should guide our work for a new tomorrow: Towards a meaningful peace process allowing both Israelis and Palestinians to live side by side in peace and security, in two independent states".
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