LAST YEAR, DANIEL BARENBOIM'S WEST-EASTERN DIVAN ORCHESTRA, MADE UP OF ISRAELI AND ARAB YOUTHS, RAN INTO A LOGISTICAL PROBLEM
The famed Israeli conductor had arranged for a group of Israeli and Palestinian musicians to play a concert in Qatar. The issue: Qatari customs wouldn't accept Israeli passports, and not all the participants had access to the extra travel documents that most Israelis resort to in such situations. But Barenboim knew where to turn for help. The group traveled to Qatar on high-level German passports arranged on short notice by the German Foreign Office.
"We thought the Qataris could have been nicer about it, and just let them in," was the wry comment of a German government official who didn't want to be named. "But of course we were happy to help out."
The "of course" may ring oddly to American Jews--or oth-ers--who don't think of Germany as Israel's go-to pal in times of need. It's more common to think of Germany still in the emotional tones of the post-Holocaust generation--a visceral reluctance to attend Wagner operas or to buy a Mercedes or a Volkswagen; a concern about the persistence of anti-Semitism; a sharp eye out for anything that smacks of denial or defensiveness. And those emotions run far deeper in Israel, home to the world's largest number of Holocaust survivors. History hangs as a heavy cloud over any relations between Israel and the nation bound up most tragically in its rebirth.
But today's Germany is one of the best friends Israel has. Not many know that Germany is Israel's largest trading partner in Europe (and its third-largest overall, after the United States and China); in 2013 Israel imported $4.6 billion in German goods ranging from chemicals to optical measuring instruments. That relationship extends to scientific exchange; security and counterterrorism cooperation; and weaponry. Germany is a major supplier and funder of Israeli arms, notably the Dolphin-class submarines that can be outfitted to carry nuclear missiles, considered the linchpin of Israel's "second-strike" strategy in case of an attack by Iran. Since 1991, Germany has built and delivered five Dolphins worth $2.65 billion to Israel, subsidizing up to 50 percent of the costs. A sixth is on order, with Germany covering a third of the price tag.
"They're very strong supporters; it's an excellent relationship," says Shimon Stein, who was Israel's ambassador to Germany from 2001 to 2007. And it's not just about hardware. "When the Israelis look to the Germans for help, they always come through," says J.D. Bindenagel, a U.S. diplomat who was special envoy to Germany for Holocaust issues under President Bill Clinton and negotiated agreements on restitution, compensation for forced labor and other highly sensitive issues. "They really get it."
There's a reason for this. From the earliest postwar years, the political leadership of the Federal Republic of Germany embraced the view that their nation could regain legitimacy only by public atonement for Nazi atrocities, reconciliation with world Jewry and support for Israel. That consensus has held across parties and through reunification. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the Israeli Knesset in 2008, she declared that ensuring Israel's security was an essential part of Germany's Staatsraison--a strong, if untranslatable, word meaning something between "national interest" and "reason for being."
IT'S a cold March afternoon in Berlin, a city so bustling with construction and reconstruction projects that crossing the street can be a challenge. Amid the hubbub, in a gleaming white stone building decorated with flags, is the Heinrich Boll Foundation, affiliated with Germany's Green Party The offices of a left-leaning European think tank seem like the last place you'd come for a testament to German support of Israel.
But, says Bastian Hermisson, "German politicians of almost every party put the most emphasis on good European-Israeli relations." Hermisson runs the Boll Foundation's office in Brussels, home of many European Union (EU) institutions, and is well-placed to observe as German parliamentarians advocate for Israel and against boycotts and hostile language.
"Overall the German parliamentarians are the strongest voice against boycott sentiment," he says. "In the parliament, they're outnumbered--they're only 97 out of 751." He adds that they can accomplish more in smaller councils and behind closed doors.
Germany consistently lobbies on behalf of enhanced trade status for Israel. It pushes for Israel's inclusion in EU programs: One is Horizon 2020, which will give Israel $417 million for scientific research over seven years.
But the landscape isn't favorable. Pressure to censure or boycott Israel over its settlement policies has risen significantly in recent years, and Germans are often the only Euro-legislators resisting. "Some people say we are the last man standing" on IT'S Israel's side in Brussels, says a close associate of Merkel. "It's more difficult. The atmosphere in Brussels [on settlements] is one of extreme overall exasperation."
Advocates for Israel were disappointed last year when the European Court of Justice ruled on a long-running dispute, saying that products from the West Bank were not eligible for Israel's favored tax treatment because they are produced outside its "core lands." Though seen as a minor change well short of an actual sanction, the ruling has created an opening for pro-boycott forces: It gives member states the opportunity to label products by geographic origin, which may make it easier to boycott Israeli ones.
German support for Israel isn't confined to Europe. Germany was one of only 14 countries to vote in the United Nations against Palestinians' bid for membership in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2011. In 2012, advising the government of Tunisia on its new constitution, Germans applied pressure to remove a sentence defining Zionism as racism; the final text appeared without it. And German intelligence-sharing was a key factor, observers say, in bringing home hostage Gilad Shalit.
Konrad Adenauer, the first postwar chancellor and an inspirational, pro-Western figure, believed that reaching out to Israel was his nation's only pathway to legitimacy and acceptance by the West. For his part, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, understood that German investment could help his cash-strapped, fledgling state, which was struggling to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees.
During the 1950s...