Merkel, the Village of Khan al-Ahmar and a Question: Where Does Germany Stand on Israel?

Published October 7th, 2018 - 11:25 GMT
Angela Merkel lays a wreath in commemoration of Holocaust victims at Yad Vashem Memorial in Israel on October 4th 2018 (AFP)
Angela Merkel lays a wreath in commemoration of Holocaust victims at Yad Vashem Memorial in Israel on October 4th 2018 (AFP)

By Eleanor Beevor

A two-day visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Israel this week has conveyed a great deal of mixed signals. Before she left, there was a spate of rumours coming from Israel’s Army Radio station that Merkel had threatened to cancel the visit if the demolition of the West Bank Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar went ahead.

Yet she dismissed these rumours upon reaching Israel, and was reported to say that Khan a-Ahmar was “an Israeli matter”. Shortly afterwards, Israeli media declared that “Merkel says Palestinians must accept Israel as the Jewish State”.

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But despite these apparent statements of support from Germany for the Israeli right, and numerous Israeli headlines about the reaffirmation of a friendship with Germany, this friendship is a tricky one. And Israeli relations with Germany have implications for its relations with Europe as a whole.

Germany is the major economic and political engine behind the European Union. Naturally, this means that it has a strong internationalist outlook, and is deeply invested in promoting adherence to international law. In that sense, her response to the Khan al-Ahmar incident was something of a departure from where Gernmany normally likes to find itself. 

Merkel, during a ceremony at the University of Haifa, at which she was awarded an honorary doctorate, reportedly responded to a question about Khan al-Ahmar by saying that “This is an Israeli matter”. It was an odd reply because legally speaking, it isn’t. Located firmly in the West Bank, the destruction of Khan al-Ahmar is illegal under international law, as are the two settlements that the village is located between.

Khan al-Ahmar is in Area C of the West Bank, and so is presently under the authority of the Israeli Civil Administration, which is managed by the Israeli military. However, this does not negate Israel’s international legal obligations, or the fact that the land is eventually meant to be returned to Palestinian control under the Oslo Accords mandate.

Thus for Merkel to refer to this as an “Israeli matter” seems odd. Hugh Lovatt, a Policy Fellow specialising on Israel-Palestine at the European Council on Foreign Relations told Al Bawaba:

Whether intended or not, Merkel effectively signalled to the Israeli government that bilateral relations with German would not be affected by actions taken against Khan Al-Ahmar, or by extension any other settlement action taken against Palestinians. This is at odds with what have been relatively forceful warnings from European governments, including Germany against this demolishment. 

German’s signalling will make it harder for some European governments to take a tougher stance, and constrain the potential for a unified response by member states. Simply put, why would the Israeli government not proceed with Khan Al-Ahmar’s destruction after today?" 

Certainly, the Israeli media has framed her comments as a green light to do as they wish. And today, it was revealed that Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman wrote to a number of European governments and the European Union, warning them to refrain from criticising Israel’s decision on Khan al-Ahmar. Germany was notably absent from the list of those being warned.

 

Nevertheless, Merkel’s comments are not a real reflection of Germany’s ideological position. High-profile visits between state leaders are carefully orchestrated pieces of political theatre, especially when those leaders speak in public. The visits are meant to reassure the public of those countries’ friendship, and so there are limits to what can be said in front of an audience. Moreover, the German government has made clear its opposition to Israeli settlement building in the past, and has a tricky relationship with the Israeli media on this front.

Dr. Felix Berenskoetter, a Senior Lecturer in international relations at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, who has examined German-Israeli relations, told Al Bawaba:

Conservative Israeli voices have long been keen to frame Merkel's statements in a way that strengthens their positions (and the German government has complained about subtle manipulations in the past). If Merkel then used that phrase abut Khan al-Ahmar being an Israeli matter during the visit, she did so to not get into the debate there and then.

There are significant, long-standing and frequently voiced disagreements between the two governments regarding settlements/the occupation/paths to peace. Merkel sees this demolition as part of the settlement issue and so as part of something that Germany believes it has the right, indeed responsibility to criticise.”

She very likely would have made those criticisms in private, in closed-door talks with Prime Minister Netanyahu later in the visit. However, there was a second occasion in which the Israeli media celebrated some of Merkel’s comments as an ideological victory for their right-wing. And again, the reality is more complicated.

In Jerusalem, Merkel Says Palestinians Must Accept Israel as Jewish State”, said the Times of Israel headline on the 4th of October. The article acknowledged that Merkel remained in support of the two-state solution, and that she had expressed ongoing concerns about the rights of non-Jewish minorities in Israel. Yet, she said, “…we recognise the Jewish state”.

That’s not a hugely controversial position in itself. Most western nations accept Israel as the Jewish state. However, after the passing of the highly controversial Nation State Law in Israel in the past few months, what exactly is meant by “the Jewish state” rather depends on who is asked. For western leaders, Israel’s character as the Jewish state is unproblematic so long as non-Jewish minorities have equal rights in determining the country’s future.

The Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank on September 6, 2018. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

But now that this nation-state law has been passed, which mandates that the Jewish people must be the ones to determine Israel’s future, that equality has become deeply questionable, if not impossible. It upsets Israel’s claim to democracy, and the idea that each individual has an equal say in the country’s future through their vote. Merkel voiced these concerns when she acknowledged Israel as the Jewish state. But to look at the headlines alone, one would think she had handed Israel an ideological victory. 

Nevertheless, Germany’s relations with Israel are made even more complex by history, a history which will always somewhat restrain Germany’s criticisms. Dr Andreas Krieg, a researcher in Middle Eastern security studies at King’s College London told Al Bawaba: 

German foreign policy towards Israel has always been a lot more balanced in favour of Israel than for other European states. The historic legacy of the Holocaust still weighs heavy on bilateral relations and makes this relationship from Berlin’s point of view special. Unlike other European partners, Germany has never overtly criticized Israel for its policies towards the Palestinian issue until very recently. As many policy makers in Germany have repeatedly said, the security of Israel is a German raison d’état and unconditional.” 

 

Germany thus feels a historical responsibility to be exceptionally careful when criticizing Israel. Despite the debated meanings of Merkel’s comments in Jerusalem, Germany has actually increased its criticisms of Israeli policy under the Netanyahu government, even if it has to do so with a light touch. Dr. Krieg continued:

There is an increased frustration in Germany with the Netanyahu government over its populist narratives and policies, and the blatant disregard for international law when it comes to building settlements. Merkel has repeatedly criticised Netanyahu for undermining the peace process and both leaders do not get on personally. I do not see a turn in Germany’s approach towards the Arab Palestinian conflict from this visit. And if there was a change of tone then the change of tone in recent years has rather been against the Netanyahu’s narrative than for it.”

Thus despite being a flagship state in terms of its importance to the European Union, Germany is a rather atypical example of European foreign policy towards Israel-Palestine. It is far harder for Israel to find implied support in – for instance - the messages of EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini, who was unreservedly critical of the planned Khan al-Ahmar demolition.

Restraint on Germany’s part doesn’t mean support of the Israeli right-wing’s ends. But if not examined carefully, it could look a lot like it.


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