As Relations Between Israel and Europe Shift, Consider Germany

The relationship between Israel and Europe has been in the spotlight in recent weeks, beginning with the Nov. 29 United Nations vote for Palestinian statehood, in which the Czech Republic was the only European country to join Israel and the United States in rejecting the bid.

What followed the next week was the summoning of Israeli ambassadors to several European capitals after the decision by Israel to approve the construction of new settlements.

So when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Berlin, Germany earlier this month to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Israeli anger over the German decision to abstain from the UN vote, and European anger over Israeli settlements, made for a visit marred by tensions.

"Support of Israel remains a critical part of German and European foreign policy toward the Middle East," Joel Peters, an associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech, explained in an interview.

Discussing the shift in European policy toward Israel, Peters, who was also the founding director of the Ben Gurion University Center for the Study of European Politics and Society, said that while these latest developments will not have an immediate impact on relations, they are an important part of a broader transition in the way that Europe deals with Israel in the future.

Europe has always spoken with a common voice on what the peace process should look like, he said. But as its disappointment over perceived Israeli intransigence deepens, there is a greater sense of urgency in its push for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"There is a need to get back to the negotiation table," he said. "There is a need to move forward because time is slipping by."

Peters said that while Europe will continue to work with Israel in the hope of bringing it back to the negotiating table, it also sees the need to strengthen the Palestinian Authority. The European countries that abstained from the UN vote did so in part because voting no would have further alienated and weakened Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he explained.

Noting the difficulty of a coordinated European foreign policy, he said there has been improved coordination between European powers including Britain, Germany, and France when it comes to Middle East policy.

But the relationship between Germany and Israel is particularly sensitive, Peters said, noting the way the "shadow of the Holocaust" hangs over German-Israeli relations.

"The Holocaust is part of the backdrop of any Israeli-German relationship," he said. "It is part of the fabric of German history. It is part of the fabric of the Jewish experience in Europe. And it is part of the guiding philosophy of German policy toward Israel."

But, he continued, a sense of German guilt and obligation is not what drives this relationship. Rather, Israel and Germany have developed a shared set of common interests over the past 65 years. While the relationship between Germany and Israel cannot be understood without referring back to this dark past, that does not mean that Germany will put its hand up for Israel no matter what, Peters said.

The German government, like many European countries, has faced growing frustrations with the policies of the Israeli government, "as nothing has moved peace process negotiations forward over the past four or five years."

Explaining that, in the past, Merkel was criticized for being to easy on Israel, Peters noted a shift in her stance, including but not limited to the German decision to abstain in the UN vote.

He said this shift is likely to continue in Germany and throughout Europe, with "more public statements and public signals" putting the pressure on Israel, after years of behind-the-scenes dialogue has failed to yield results.