In a piece about Germany as a geo-economic power that I recently wrote for Internationale Politik, a German foreign-policy journal, I argued that Germany’s “special relationship” with Israel might in future weaken. It seems to me that the relationship is all that remains of the foreign policy based on the idea of Auschwitz as Germany’s raison d’état that Joschka Fischer sought to develop (a theme of my book, Utopia or Auschwitz). Although Chancellor Angela Merkel is personally committed to the Jewish state, I think she is under increasing pressure from an anti-Israeli public opinion and from Germany’s economic interests with the Arab world. I also wonder whether a dramatic event – such as an Israeli military strike on Iran – could be a tipping point that creates a rupture between Germany and Israel in the way that the Iraq war did between Germany and the US.
The background to this possible emergence of what my colleague Daniel Levy calls a “post-Zionist Germany” is the reduction in the importance of the Holocaust as a factor in German foreign policy. From the 1980s onwards, the Holocaust became an increasingly important collective memory in West German public life. But during the last decade it has started to recede in importance. In the NATO military intervention in Kosovo in 1999, the Federal Republic sent troops into combat for the first time following a debate that centred on the Holocaust. In 2011, by contrast, it abstained on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 authorising military intervention to prevent a massacre in Benghazi. Moreover, during the debate about it, few people brought up Auschwitz at all.
Against this background, there has been increasing resentment against Israel in Germany – in particular around the issue of settlements – which has put pressure on Merkel. She reiterated her commitment to the Jewish state when Benjamin Netanyahu visited Berlin last January – but even she was disappointed with him. The following month, Germany voted in favor of a UN resolution demanding a halt to Israeli settlement expansion – an unusual break with Israel. Later in the year, Germany opposed the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN. But according to one poll, 84 percent of Germans supported Palestinian statehood and 76 percent believe Germany should act to recognise it – an even higher proportion in each case than in France or the UK.
There has been much discussion recently about the possibility of Israeli military action against Iran in 2012. In a list we made of possible developments in international politics in 2012, my colleagues and I at ECFR suggested that next year there could be a perfect storm in which the Netanyahu government might think it is the best time to strike. My hunch is that if that happens, the remaining sympathy the German public has for Israel would evaporate. An Israeli military strike would prompt another competition in Germany between the two principles of “Never again war” and “Never again Auschwitz”. In 1999, “Never again Auschwitz” seemed to win. But my reading of collective memory trends in Germany in the last decade tells me that in 2012 “Never again war” is likely to.