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“It is almost a miracle” – 50 years of relations between Germany and Israel

11.05.2015 - Interview

Frank-Walter Steinmeier on 50 years of German-Israeli relations. Published in the Journal für Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft on 11 May 2015.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier on 50 years of German-Israeli relations. Published in the Journal für Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft on 11 May 2015.

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Fifty years ago, the Federal Republic of Germany and Israel established diplomatic relations. To what extent have today’s diverse German-Israeli relations become a normal fact of life?

Our relationship to Israel is and remains a special one – and this is a good thing. The fact that the State of Israel established relations with the country of the perpetrators only two decades after the Holocaust was anything but a matter of course – on the contrary, it was a decision that was accompanied by fierce political debates in Israel.

Germany and Israel are now partners that share the same values and cooperate closely in the worlds of business and academia. Dialogue and mutual interest in art and literature are experiencing a veritable boom, which is also being witnessed in the start‑up scene and creative industries. Against the backdrop of history, all of this is anything but normal – it is almost a miracle.

The divide between the political discourse and public opinion is growing in Germany, however. According to a recent survey, almost half of the German population has a negative opinion of Israel, even rising to 54 per cent among those aged 18 to 29. What do you make of this development?

It is true that the history of the Holocaust is playing an ever smaller role in the public’s perception of Israel in Germany and that, unfortunately, Israel is often only mentioned in German media in connection with the Middle East conflict. Politicians must also take steps to counteract this unidimensional point of view.

Direct dialogue is all the more important. However, I believe that there is no cause for concern here when I see how thousands of young Israelis are coming to Berlin and how many young Germans are discovering Israel for themselves on exchange programmes and holidays.

My impression is that the young generation of Germans and Israelis also has a great deal to talk about – even if the Holocaust is no longer automatically the starting point for their interactions. It is important to keep joint remembrance of the Shoah alive. Norbert Kron and Amichai Shalev have found a great formula for this: we don’t forget, we go dancing.

What bearing does Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust have on German foreign policy today? To what extent is it possible and permissible for Germany to play a role, for instance in the Middle East peace process?

The unique relationship that binds us with Israel today is only conceivable because Germany has assumed responsibility not only for the crimes of the Holocaust, but also for the existence and security of the State of Israel.

The fact that we bear this responsibility is the reason why we are committed, together with our European partners, to a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians. We must not underestimate the fact that the peace process entails difficult and painful decisions for both parties and requires the courage to make compromises. Europe can do a great deal to make decisions such as these easier. It can support pragmatic solutions, create trust and point to and keep open channels of communication and ways ahead.

How difficult is it to bridge the divide between this solidarity and critical developments in Israel – such as the rejection of the two‑state solution by the Israeli Prime Minister during the election campaign?

You can and must discuss differences of opinion among friends. In terms of the settlement construction in the occupied territories, we have always made our position clear, which is that we consider the settlement construction to be a violation of international law and an obstacle to a peaceful solution with the Palestinians. But this is also a question of getting the tone right. No one wants to listen to criticism that comes with wagging fingers and pompous historic gestures.

Some statements in recent months have hampered prospects for a revival of the peace process. Despite all of this, it seems to me that the understanding still is that there can be no peace for Israelis and Palestinians without a two‑state solution. The question is which political conclusions they draw from this. We will have to wait and see how the new Israeli Government positions itself.

What do you think German-Israeli relations will focus on in the future? Where will we be in ten years from now?

While the cooperation between our governments will still be important, German-Israeli relations have always been more than just an elite project. They have become what they are today thanks to the work of many thousands of committed citizens in both countries.

We are currently witnessing how the young generation of Germans and Israelis are beginning to write a new chapter of German-Israeli relations. This is a generation that is united by a mutual fascination and the enormous dynamism of the artistic and creative industries, as well as by a newly discovered interest in shared cultural and historical roots. I believe that this new kind of dialogue and the contacts and networks that are emerging today will continue to shape our relations for many years to come.

The questions were put by Michael Bröning. Reproduced by kind permission of the publisher. www.ipg‑journal.de

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