Monitoring Report July 2017
A bitter-sweet friendship - The German-Israeli relationship in times of strategic shift
The past week has been exemplary and intense in its example of how great the potential of the German-Israeli relationship is – but it also demonstrated the power of the conflicting forces that lie just below the surface. It has never been so clearly revealed simultaneously: The positive, the common bond, as well as that which separates, drives apart and conflicts. The bilateral relationship of the two countries is facing enormous challenges at a time in which major shifts are taking place in conditions in the Middle East – accompanied by upheavals of epic proportion. The quick turnover of events in Germany is closely connected to the fact that the past week was the last week the German Parliament was in session for this legislative period. A flood of bills where on the table that "still had to be passed" before Parliament recessed. A good example is the "marriage for all" bill that set politicians from every party and persuasion under pressure to get it passed before the short summer break and the subsequent elections.
But let's take it in sequence: On Tuesday, June 27, 2017 the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif visited Berlin. In relation to previous visits, he was received on a higher official level and with greater honor. He had meetings with the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Finance Minister Schäuble and Foreign Minister Gabriel. What made the situation unusual as far as official protocol is concerned is the fact that the German President officially met with the Foreign Minister of another country. This is especially disturbing in light of the fact that it was the Foreign Minister of Iran, whose office had participated just the weekend before in the official "Al-Quds" day held in Iran, which called for the destruction of Israel.
But that did not deter the highest ranking politicians of our country, first and foremost Sigmar Gabriel. The official position that Israel's right of existence was not negotiable was stated in monotones, without conviction and simply out of duty – and then they moved on to the agenda of the day. According to the report in the "Bild" newspaper, Gabriel argued that one could not "abuse" the areas of conflict, where there was no agreement, to bring the nuclear agreement with Iran into question, for example. i To put it crudely: Just because Iran calls for the annihilation of Israel, parades a few ballistic missiles through the streets of Teheran and shows off countdowns to the destruction of Israel - that is no reason not to do business? That would be going a step too far and be a clear abuse of the disagreement regarding Israel! No word about the holocaust, about Germany's reason of state, no backbone, no moral stand, only the obvious concern regarding the nuclear agreement. Gabriel made it abundantly clear that Germany would hold to its part of the deal, regardless of Iran's fantasies of Israel's annihilation.
In the halls of the Foreign Ministry the clear critique from the Israeli Ambassador, Yaakov Hadas-Handelsman, fell on deaf ears. In an interview with the "Bild" Newspaper he said, "We find it to be wrong that the international community continues on with its agenda while the Iranian regime proudly presents its rockets, bombards the Syrian population with its armed forces, provides weapons to terrorist organizations, denies the holocaust and calls for the annihilation of Israel." He went on to say, "There is no reason why the Iranian Foreign Minister should be received with high honors here or in any other European country. We are sure that the German government knows exactly what a clear response to Iran's horrific behavior should look like."
This moral low-point on Tuesday was followed unannounced on Wednesday by the sunny side of the German-Israeli relationship. The German Security Cabinet decided to deliver three additional dolphin-class submarines to Israel and to cover a third of the 1.5 Billion Euro cost. ii These submarines not only serve the maritime defense of Israel and it's off-shore drilling platforms, but it is also said that they have the capacity to carry nuclear weapons, giving Israel the strategically critical "second strike" capability – the ability to strike back even after an effective nuclear attack against her. That is called a nuclear deterrent. The cold war stands testimony to the effectiveness of this tactic.
But Israel is not the only beneficiary. The German-Israeli relationship is not a one-way street, but flows in both directions. On that same Wednesday, the German Parliament voted on a bill presented by the Ministry of Defense. The question was whether Germany should lease the highly-developed Israeli Heron-TP drones. While Israel is the world leader in the area of development and construction of the drones, Germany has not built up a significant capacity in this area to date. Germany would have been the clear winner in this deal, had the SPD not voted against it. The potential of weaponizing the drones and a paragraph in the contract to train pilots to fly them had not been discussed in sufficient detail, according to the comrades, so they killed the bill. It will be reconsidered during the next legislative period. iii iv
Benajmin Netanyahu's participation in the funeral of Helmut Kohl last Saturday provided impressive proof that the historical bond of friendship between Germany and Israel still holds. Netanyahu praised Kohl's contribution to the German-Israeli relationship. He even endured criticism for honoring the great German statesman – the funeral took place on a Sabbath – a touchy situation for an Israeli Prime Minister whose government is in coalition with ultraorthodox parties. v vi
Then, this week, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel began a trip to the Arabian Peninsula. His goal was to deal with the Qatar crisis and to represent Germany's interests in the new order in the Middle East. This crisis had been smoldering for a long time, but it came to light as a result of US President Trump's visit to the Middle East and has been threatening to escalate out of control since then.
In contrast to his predecessor, Barack Obama, Trump made it clear that he would not sit idly by and watch other powers mold the Middle East according to their own ambitions, but that he would stand up for America's interests in the region and defend them if necessary. The rocket attack on the Syrian airbase from which the chemical weapon attack on Aleppo was launched, the downing of a Syrian fighter plane, the attack of the US-supported Rebels, the deployment of a US aircraft carrier off the coast of Israel at Haifa, the showdown with North Korea and China in the China Sea (North Korea is a close partner with Iran in rocket and nuclear research, for example) as well as the diplomatic efforts of the USA in the Middle East under Trump speak a clear message. During his meeting in Riad, Trump, who is putting all his efforts into repairing the disastrous Obama-era Foreign and Security policies, stated his administration's position very clearly against Iran and against those Arabian states, primarily Qatar, who support terror.
This speech vii will probably change the Middle East at least as significantly as Obama's Cairo speech in 2009 did – but this time in accordance with the interests of the west rather than against them. Although it could well be that achieving these goals may require military action.
Strategically, these shifts are in Israel's interest. Under Obama, an historic cooperation between Israel and Arabian regimes in Cairo, Riad and Amman, which were also negatively affected by Obama's policies, began to form. The over-riding concept behind this unlikely partnership is: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend". It is the common interest to weaken Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. It is in the interests of Israel, America, the Arabian nations and it should be in the interests of Europe - if it wishes to follow America's lead in turning away from the alignment with and the appeasement of Iran. In order to properly understand the situation in Qatar, we need to take a closer look at this small country.
The tiny nation of Qatar packs a punch far beyond its size on the international stage. Blessed with rich oil and gas reserves, the royal Al Thani family pursues a goal of independence and unpredictability with its oil billions. Historically, it has always been at odds with Saudi Arabia. In its territory, Doha hosts not only the US 6th fleet, but also the strategically highly significant US Airbase, Al Udeid. In addition, it has allowed Turkey to establish an Airbase on its soil as well - for strategic reasons. The Emir of Qatar is one of the biggest supporters of Hamas, whose leader was able to plan terror attacks from Qatar. He also supports other terrorist organizations as well as the conflict in Syria. Together with Iran, Qatar transports gas in the Persian Gulf and deals with the Saudis at times, and with the Iranians at other times, depending on which serves its own interests best. In Europe, Qatar buys into leading brands and sports clubs – be it Paris St. Germain, FC Barcelona and FC Bayern in soccer or VW and the Deutsch Bank in business, Shiek Al Thani actively participates in such investments and buys himself influence. Billions are invested to purchase large sporting events such as the Soccer World Cup or the Olympic games. With his Al-Jazeera television station and the Sunnite preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Qatar possesses a mighty, very influential voice into the Arab world. Qatar's airport is one of the major hubs of European-Asian air travel. The role and significance of Qatar is not to be underestimated.
Encouraged by clear signals from the Trump Administration, the Sunnite nations, among them Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, united in threatening Qatar with sanctions if it did not implement a nearly impossible 13 point plan within ten days. They have blocked Al Jazeera in their countries, closed their airspace, borders and harbors and have expelled Qatar citizens from their countries. This has put the small gulf Emirate under intense pressure. In the meantime, the situation has entered a cycle of escalation that threatens to break out in armed conflict.
Voices for America to intervene diplomatically are getting stronger. viii In this situation, Sigmar Gabriel is trying to establish the interests of Germany – primarily the avoidance of armed conflict, the inviolability of the Iran nuclear arms deal, and at the same time being open for the establishment of economic relationships with the Arab nations.
Currently, Germany is moving away from Washington and, besides stronger cooperation within the European community, it is counting on cooperation with the self-created regional power Iran. That was made abundantly clear through Javad Zarif's visit to Berlin. Foreign Minister Gabriel couldn't say it often enough. Economic interests have top priority. Israel, on the other hand, finds itself in the historic situation of cooperation with the Sunnite states and on the fast track in the process of restoring relationship with and regaining support from the US government. Its strategic and existential interest lies in the further development of cooperation on the other side of the Persian Gulf.
Hope remains that the roots of the German-Israeli relationship are strong enough and that the diplomats and political leaders of both nations are thoughtful and wise enough to endure this current tension. Germany needs to reconsider its non-critical approach to Teheran. Based on the background of German history, it cannot be justified and it is dangerous. Israel should be Germany's strategic partner in the Middle East. That is no longer a hindrance to close cooperation with the Arab nations – just the contrary.