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German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was in Israel earlier this week, for talks with the Israeli authorities about the growing wave of violence in Jerusalem, the currently semi-moribund Palestinian-Israeli ‘peace process’, and fears of the outbreak of the Third Intifada in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. It is, of course, unlikely that one visit by a German foreign minister could unlock a diplomatic and security logjam that has defied even the current US administration. Still, Mr Steinmeier’s foray is a reminder of just how much more active Germany’s Middle East engagement now is, but also of how sensitive German-Israeli relations are likely to remain.
The Warship Deal
Steinmeier’s visit comes after reports by the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz and the German Spiegel magazine, that the German government has agreed to subsidise Israel’s purchase of two (Spiegel) or three (Haaretz) warships from the Thyssen Krupp Marine Systems shipyard in Kiel in northern Germany. The order (presumably either for MEKO A100 corvettes or MEKO CSL frigates) is reported to be worth around €1 billion, of which Germany will pay €300 million.
The German government has so far neither confirmed nor denied the deal. As with all defence exports the German National Security Council has to approve the sale of the ships. If confirmed, however, the agreement would once again underline the special relationship between Germany and Israel. It would also serve as a timely reminder of where German priorities in the Middle East lie, as the country’s foreign policy, driven by Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier, is becoming more active – most recently manifested in the delivery of German arms to the Kurdish Peshmerga.
German defence exports to Israel are not new, of course, and this is not the first time that Israel could receive a substantial discount financed with German taxpayers’ money. In September 2014, the fourth of six German-built Dolphin-Class submarines arrived in Israel (the remaining two will be delivered by 2017). Here too, Germany covered a third of the cost for the submarine, after gifting Israel the first two and paying for half of the third. In the government’s budget these discounts for Israel are listed as ‘contribution to the procurement of defence systems for Israel’. Other customers of German arms – including Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Algeria – receive no such discounts.
The new warships are needed to patrol and protect Israel’s growing off-shore natural gas production infrastructure. Discovered in the eastern Mediterranean in 2009, the enormous gas fields (containing an estimated one billion cubic metres of natural gas) are set to boost Israel’s economy and make the country a net exporter of energy. The Israeli government fears that drilling platforms and pipelines could become targets for groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas and therefore seeks to upgrade its naval capacities.
Historic German-Israeli Relations
News of the deal comes on the eve of the fiftieth anniversaryof officially established bilateral diplomatic relations between the two countries. Over the decades, German-Israeli relations have grown remarkably close. Germany is Israel’s most important European trading partner; the governments of both countries meet annually for extensive consultations; and in countries where Israel does not have a diplomatic presence, Israeli citizens are now being looked after by German consulate services.
At the same time, German-Israeli relations are naturally defined by the history of the Second World War and the Holocaust in particular. Over the past seven decades, the collective memory of the Holocaust has come to define the strategic cultures and foreign policies of both Germany and Israel. In Israel, it has contributed to the development of one of the strongest militaries in the world and a defence posture that sometimes appears openly aggressive. In Germany, it has shaped the often propagated ‘culture of military restraint’ and, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel proclaimed in a speech in the Knesset in Jerusalem in 2008,has madeIsrael’s security part of Germany’s raison d’être.
Tensions and negotiations
The potential warship deal emphasises Germany’s commitment to Israel’s security, but also highlights some of the tensions in the maturing relationship between the two countries. The central question in this context is whether Germany should be able to expect something in return for its generosity from Israel.
Germany supports the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is one of the main sponsors of the Palestinian Authority. In 2013, German payments to the Palestinians totalled €150 million. In the past, the German government has sought – generally in vain – to make its contributions to Israel’s defence procurement dependent on some Israeli concessions in the peace process; a change in Israel’s settlement policy or the release of frozen tax money to the Palestinian Authority.
The new warship deal was reportedly close to collapse in May 2014, when the German government, angry about Israel’s uncompromising attitude in the latest round of the peace process brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry, refused to grant the 30 per cent discount. After months of closed-door negotiations, the deal now appears to be back on track, seemingly unperturbed by the Gaza War in the summer and several announcements of further settlement expansion in the West Bank.
Looking to the future
If the discount was indeed granted without some form of a quid pro quo, it would mean that the German government has missed an opportunity to fill its declared ambitions of a more active foreign policy with some real meaning. Germany has the potential to become an influential actor in the Middle East, especially in the Arab-Israelipeace process. Besides its close relationship with Israel, Germany is an important and respected trading partner to many Arab states. Germany’s reputation in the region may have been damaged by its isolationist policy towards the Libya intervention in 2011 and it does not have the same experience and depth of diplomatic, intelligence and military relationships in the region as the United States, France or Britain. However, Germany’s traditional reluctance to become involved in conflicts in the Middle East also means that it carries less historical baggage other Western states.
Over the past two decades, Germany has also gained extensive experience as a successful mediator between Israel and some of its greatest adversaries. German politicians and agents of the Bundesnachrichtendienst(Germany’s foreign intelligence service) have successfully brokered several prisoner exchanges between Israel and both Hamas and Hizbullah (and, by extension, Iran). For example, the exchange of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in 2011 was the result of German mediation efforts.
If the German government wants to realise its ambition of a more active foreign policy it could begin by building on this experience and seeking a more active role in the peace process, which would undoubtedly be welcomed by the United States, Germany’s European partners and in the region itself. As for German-Israeli relations, this would require the continued maturing of the relationship between the two countries that is firmly rooted in the shared past, but not defined by it.
Tobias Borck is a PhD candidate at the Strategy and Security Institute of the University of Exeter. His current work for RUSI International focuses on the Middle East.