Fifty years of responsibility

27.12.2014 - Interview

In 2015, Germany and Israel will celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations. Tribune by Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the Jewish Voice from Germany (27.12.2014).

In 2015, Germany and Israel will celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations. Tribune by Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the Jewish Voice from Germany (27.12.2014).


In 2015, we will celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel. Some people might feel that this is not a particularly notable occasion. Indeed, they may even see it as something of a formality. But at the time, the decision to establish diplomatic relations between the Jewish state and Germany was anything but a matter of form. Particularly in Israel, this step was preceded by a phase of heated debate. The Holocaust and grief for family members who had been murdered by the Germans were seared into the memory of hundreds of thousands of people.

This meant it was by no means a matter of course that the new German state, the Federal Republic of Germany, would be accepted as a partner. Far-sighted politicians such as David Ben-Gurion, Konrad Adenauer, Shimon Peres and Johannes Rau helped to bring the two countries closer together, while many dedicated people on both sides followed in their footsteps. The result has been a closer and more profound partnership and friendship between our two countries than hardly anyone could have imagined 50 years ago.

There were two prerequisites for this unprecedented success story: firstly, the fact that Israel was willing to reach out a hand of reconciliation to Germany, the home of the perpetrators, and secondly, that Germany faced up to its responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust and also took on responsibility for the existence and security of the State of Israel.

The first aspect requires hardly any further explanation. To this day, our shared endeavours to preserve the memory of the Shoah and to fight against racism and anti-Semitism form a key component of our relations.

However, the dreadful outbursts of hatred against Jews and the slogans and attacks that we experienced in German cities during the Gaza war in the summer showed that this fight remains as urgently needed and as relevant as ever.

There is no doubt that anti-Semitism not only poses a threat to Jews, but also to democratic society as a whole. As a result, society as a whole must take on the task of counteracting hatred on the streets and in people’s minds. Jews must be able to live in safety and to move around freely and without fear in Germany. This is part of the responsibility that we are talking about.

But what does it mean when we say that Germany also takes on responsibility for the security of the State of Israel?

One example is the nuclear dispute with Iran. More than any other country, Israel feels threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon. The appalling rants about the elimination of Israel by Iran’s revolutionary leader strengthen our resolve to take this concern seriously.

Along with our partner countries, we firmly believe that combining political and economic pressure with negotiations is the most realistic way to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. This is why, together with our partners, we have gradually built up an effective sanctions regime and why we have been negotiating with Iran on a peaceful solution in the framework of the E3+3 since the end of 2013.

One thing is clear – Germany will only approve an agreement if it unequivocally, verifiably and permanently precludes the possibility of Iran building a nuclear bomb – especially because we are not only negotiating on our own behalf, but also bear responsibility for others, particularly for Israel.

This was one reason why we did not reach a settlement by the deadline of 24 November that we had set ourselves for the talks in Vienna. Nevertheless, there has been genuine progress over the past year of negotiations. As a result, we and our partners agreed that we would not give up yet. We are now allowing ourselves a few more months to try to resolve the outstanding differences.

However, the most obvious example of responsibility for Israel’s security is the tragic conflict with the Palestinians. All of Germany followed the attacks on Israel by Hamas last summer with great concern and empathy. The latest incidents in and around Jerusalem, as well as the increasing number of terrorist attacks on innocent civilians, show that the status quo is unsustainable. We firmly believe that a negotiated two-state solution offers the only hope of lasting peace.

Because we bear responsibility for Israel’s security, we and our European partners are willing to lend both political and economic support to a peaceful settlement. This was why my British and French counterparts and I made suggestions during the summer on how Europe could support a permanent ceasefire in Gaza that would address Israel’s security needs while offering the population of Gaza prospects for a better future. But in order to achieve this, the negotiations between the parties in Cairo, which have been at a standstill since September, must be restarted.

I am aware that given the decades of mistrust, any concession towards the other side involves painful compromises both for Israelis and Palestinians, even if such steps look easy from a distance. But this is the only way forward. If we want to break the vicious circle of violence and counter-violence, then we need to find a way back to negotiating a two-state solution sooner rather than later. Perhaps part of our responsibility for Israel’s security also involves reminding Israelis and Palestinians about this option and helping them to keep the paths to this solution open.

Fifty years after the hesitant beginnings, Germany and Israel have become close friends and partners. These 50 years have seen the establishment of a dense web of ties that includes all parts of society.

Of all things, a brand of chocolate pudding recently became the symbol of a new phenomenon that shows how close our relations have become – but at the same time, it also showed that our close relationship can still not be taken for granted even after 50 years. In recent years, thousands of young Israelis have moved to Berlin, where they are enriching the city’s vibrant cultural life and creative start-up scene, to name just two sectors. However, they are also attracted to the German capital by the low cost of living.

The photo of a chocolate pudding in a Berlin discount supermarket, along with its incredibly low price, was posted on Facebook by a group of young Israelis. They also published a provocative text calling on people to emigrate to Berlin in protest against high food prices in Israel. The photo of the pudding unleashed a storm of protest, not only because of the political message, but also because some people still find it difficult to accept the idea that young Israelis are choosing Germany as their (perhaps temporary) home today.

Nevertheless, we can be proud of what we have achieved in the past 50 years, as the closer ties between Israel and Germany are more than a project for the elites. These ties would be completely unthinkable without the broad commitment to reconciliation among many people in both societies.

In the anniversary year of 2015, Germany and Israel therefore want to draw attention to the people who made this process possible. We will show the many facets of this partnership through a series of events to be held all over Israel, ranging from academic cooperation, sport, a large number of town twinning projects and youth exchange to forward-looking fields such as energy production, alternative transport systems and mutual learning in start-ups and innovations. And we will have lots of cultural events! German culture in Israel and Israeli culture in Germany!

So there is far more to celebrate than simply the existence of diplomatic relations. Above all, the anniversary also marks a unique history of reconciliation, friendship and cooperation. In 2015, the focus will be on this amazing success story – a bridge that stretches from the past to the future.

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