By JUDY DEMPSEY
Published: March 7, 2011
BERLIN — On Feb. 18, Germany did something unthinkable. It voted in favor of a U.N. Security Council resolution calling the Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory illegal and demanding the immediate halt of all settlement activity.
The resolution did not pass — the United States, the only one of the Security Council’s 15 members to vote against it, vetoed it. That did not stop the German vote from opening a serious rift between Germany and Israel.
Ruprecht Polenz, a conservative lawmaker and chairman of the German Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said “the vote was highly unusual” given Germany’s practice of abstaining from or voting against any U.N.resolutions criticizing Israel.
But Mr. Polenz was adamant that it did not mean that Germany no longer defended the security of Israel. “It means that Chancellor Angela Merkel is trying to explain to the Israeli government that with the extraordinary changes taking place across the Middle East, time is not on its side when it comes to resolving the conflict with the Palestinians,” he said.
The German vote was authorized at the highest level. It marks a major change in Mrs. Merkel’s attitude toward Israel, which she had unswervingly supported since she took office more than five years ago.
Over the past few months, and particularly since the collapse of the authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, Mrs. Merkel has made it plain to the Israeli government that it cannot expect unqualified support from Berlin if it allows the conflict with Palestinians to drag on.
“The situation in Egypt should not be seen as a reason not to continue the negotiation process,” Mrs. Merkel told the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University last month. “If we sit and wait, we might face an even more difficult situation.”
Mrs. Merkel made those remarks after difficult talks, particularly related to the settlements, with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, according to Israeli and German officials.
So when Germany voted against Israel at the United Nations last month, Mr. Netanyahu was furious. He telephoned Mrs. Merkel on Feb. 21, venting his disappointment.
“How dare you?” Mrs. Merkel replied. “You are the one who has disappointed us. You haven’t made a single step to advance peace.”
The conversation, leaked to Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, and confirmed by Israeli and German officials, reveals a deep rift between Berlin and Jerusalem.
“We are disappointed with Germany’s decision,” said a senior Israeli government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It reflects the frustration that the peace process is not moving forwards and that we are at an impasse. Somehow in Europe, there is an expectation that if there is an impasse, it is Israel who must take the step to break it.”
The German vote exposed the divisions in Israel over its complicated relationship with Germany. On one side are Jews who will never forgive Germany for the Holocaust; in their view, Germany has a permanent obligation never to criticize Israel.
On the other side are voices who say that because Germany is a good and consistent friend of Israel, it should use that special relationship to speak out when needed.
“Merkel is a real friend of our country; the only one that stands up for us in Europe,” said Moshe Maor, a political science professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “Merkel is telling Netanyahu to face the changes taking place in the region. Because she is so appreciated by many here, why shouldn’t she be able to criticize Israel?”
The U.N. vote seems to be part of a more complex phase of the relationship, with Israel expecting Germany to toe the line on all counts but a younger generation of German politicians questioning that stance, especially over settlements and human rights.
Last June, for example, the Israeli government prevented Dirk Niebel, the German development minister, from visiting Gaza. He had wanted to see a €12 million, or $16.8 million, wastewater treatment plant financed by Germany. The Israeli government claimed at the time that Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza, would exploit the visit.
Mr. Niebel’s pro-Israeli credentials cannot be faulted. As a young man he lived in a kibbutz, and he was later on the board of the German-Israeli Association. When his visit to Gaza was blocked, an angry Mr. Niebel said publicly that “friendship with Israel does not make for blind obedience.”
A month later, the German Parliament unanimously passed a resolution criticizing the Israeli blockade of Gaza and Israel’s storming of a pro-Palestinian Turkish ship trying to break through to Gaza.
These shifts sent alarm signals to Israel. “It was the first time that the German Parliament passed a resolution criticizing the security policy of a close ally,” said Deidre Berger, director of the Berlin branch of the American Jewish Committee, an international advocacy organization that supports Israel.
And two weeks ago, just after the U.N. vote, the German Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, which had planned to visit Israel and the Gaza Strip, canceled the trip. The Israeli government had refused the delegation entry to Gaza.
“We wanted to see German-funded projects and meet U.N. representatives in Gaza,” said Rainer Stinner, a lawmaker from the Free Democratic Party, which is part of Germany’s governing coalition, and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
“We had no intentions of meeting Hamas.”
Mr. Stinner dismissed the idea that Israel’s refusal was linked to the U.N. vote. “Israel’s security is Germany’s priority,” Mr. Stinner said. “But the settlements are not in Israel’s interests. They are counterproductive. Our criticism does not mean that Germany’s special relationship with Israel is in doubt,” he added.
David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said the issue of settlements could probably be solved over time and should not cloud the special bonds between Berlin and Jerusalem.
The real issue, Mr. Harris added, was a different one. “The big question is if the special relationship will endure. With the passing of generations in Germany, will it continue to sustain the sense of responsibility, or, over time, will it diminish?”