- The German role in preventing naval shipments of arms supplies for Hizbollah during the war in southern Lebanon last summer should be a harbinger for a more active EU role within the Middle East.
- The Iraq war was a moment of truth for the EU, accentuating its inability to come up with a coherent policy with Germany, France and Belgium on one side of the debate against the US, UK and most other European countries.
- Opinion polls in Germany and in neighbouring countries depict the US and Israel as major threats to world peace. No matter how ill founded a view this is, any European country wishing to shape the Greater Middle East through peace keeping, let alone peace enforcement, has to take these poll numbers into account.
- However, no Chancellor of Germany will ever be allowed to ignore the burden of history, the moral obligation towards the state of Israel and the implications for policy that this brings. While normally being abrasive about the EU in general, Germany is often praised by the Israelis as Israel’s number one ally among the Europeans.
- Continuing a long history of German military assistance to Israel, German companies have been at the forefront of Israel’s preparations since the 1990s to ward off a potentially nuclear Iran, and the German government sold three “Dolphin” class nuclear submarines to enhance Israel’s second strike capability, with the possibility of more to follow.
- The German-Israeli special relationship imposes a characteristic ambiguity on German policies towards the Islamic countries of the region. German governments have tried to reconcile EU policies towards the Palestinians with traditional German support for Israel.
- Germany has become increasingly involved in power politics throughout the Greater Middle East. It is engaged in the Quartet and its “road map” through the EU, and has been in the forefront of negotiations aimed at preventing a nuclear Iran. While the Schroeder government explicitly ruled out military action to prevent the latter, Ms Merkel has said it is an unacceptable outcome and all options remain on the table.
- There is a time to sit on the fence and a time to take sides. Germany under various chancellors has always tried to avoid stark choices. The Iranian bid for mastery may well require the countries of the EU to stand up and be counted. Dodging the alternative will have a stiff price: Making the EU untrustworthy, splitting the Atlantic alliance once more and leaving Israel alone.
Last summer’s defining event for the Greater Middle East was the war in southern Lebanon. It was also a new departure for Germany to engage militarily in the region. Germany, while not wanting to send ground troops to swell the ranks of the struggling UNIFIL mission in southern Lebanon, compromised on sending a frigate and some smaller war vessels to police the coast of Lebanon against unlawful supply of weapons for Hizbollah, the Shi’ite militia. The episode is not without its grim irony: On shore, the UNIFIL soldiers are unable to cordon off supply routes across the Lebanon and Antilebanon mountains established since time immemorial. On sea, Hizbollah has in the past not relied on supplies by ship. At any rate, the Germans, for the time being, are putting up something of a deterrent, quite literally a fleet in being – no less but also no more.
It is unlikely, however, that this will prove to be the beginning of more German military involvement in the wider region. But it could mean that in the eyes of Israeli as well as Arab leaders the EU ceases to punch below its weight in the trials and tribulations of the Greater Middle East and assume, more through necessity than by choice, a wider role in the region.
While it is widely understood among policy makers and in the wider strategic community in Berlin that the Greater Middle East is where the destinies of the world are being played out, now and in the foreseeable future, Germany argues for a soft power approach and, if possible, the widest possible alliance to apply it, preferably the EU in its entirety.
But the EU is rarely if ever united on Middle East policy. First of all it congenitally speaks with many voices – the foreign policy telephone number that Henry Kissinger demanded in 1973 has still not been clearly identified – and, when it comes to Israel, the German position usually is more understanding than the voice of France, influenced by traditional French involvement in North African affairs and the fact that something like six million Muslims live in the Hexagon.
Speaking about the Greater Middle East, it should not be overlooked that the recent Iraq war was a moment of truth for the EU – accentuating its inability to come up with a coherent policy. It was over US policy towards the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular that in 2002/2003 the most dramatic policy rift occurred between Germany, France and Belgium on the one side, the US and most other European countries on the other side. As Donald Rumsfeld famously put it: Old Europe against New Europe.
The reverberations can still be felt throughout EU-Europe and NATO. For a long time to come the blow to what has optimistically been called European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) will be felt throughout the EU and NATO: There is now a serious absence of trust among allies, impacting not only on possible deployments but also rendering any attempt at “niche capabilities”, economics of scale for procurement and a European intervention force (“Battle Groups”) fairly unlikely. The policy ruptures over the shape and fate of the Greater Middle East forced the Europeans into a defining moment of the worst possible kind.
Today, opinion polls in Germany and in neighbouring countries depict the US as the major threat to world peace – happily ignoring the need for some kind of world order and somebody to lend it some muscle – while Israel ranks fourth on the list of dangers to peace. This may be, in the eyes of the expert, merely ill guided opinions. But any government wanting to play a proactive role in shaping the Greater Middle East through peace keeping, let alone peace enforcement, has to take those numbers into account. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, knows full well that her coalition partner, the Social Democrats, may use the question of continuing deployment of German troops in Afghanistan, let alone augmenting them, as a welcome opportunity to leave the coalition, push for new elections and play, as chancellor Schröder did so successfully in 2002, the party of peace versus the party of war, the party of Germany versus the party of the US. And if some anti-Zionist undertones are mixed into the brew, then that does not lessen the attraction of the stance. Every government has a domestic constituency difficult to control, and Ms. Merkel’s is no exception, foreign policy issues rarely getting beyond the stage of slogans in German public discourse.
However, looking at the Greater Middle East and the many conflicts criss-crossing the region, no chancellor of Germany will ever be allowed to ignore the burden of history, the moral obligation towards the state of Israel and the implications for policy that this brings. Official Israeli visitors to Germany have an understandable tendency to remind the Germans, government and public alike, not only of the Holocaust but also of the implications for the present and the future. While normally being abrasive about the EU in general, Germany is often praised as, after the US, Israel’s number one ally among the Europeans.
Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s Pater patriae, understood this state of affairs long before Germany could hope to graduate from pariah state to being accepted as an equal among nations. So the first significant foreign policy accord that he concluded was with the Jewish World Congress, in order to settle some outstanding claims against Germany. The more general London debt settlement with the Western powers of 1954 followed in its wake, paving the way towards European postwar reconstruction and also securing for the Bonn republic the role of sole holder of continuity and legitimacy in divided Germany.
Long before 1965, when – at high cost among Arab states – formal diplomatic relations were established with the state of Israel, the Federal Republic had been one of the key arms suppliers to the struggling Jewish state. The deliveries were handled without either side having the slightest interest in any publicity. But they helped to build some kind of cold trust between both sides which in turn contributed to Germany’s standing with the US – the key protector-ally for Germany’s precarious position in Europe vis-a-vis Soviet power, surrounded also, in Western Europe, by no small amount of mistrust.
The weapons connection, while being operated behind a veil of secrecy, continued to a certain point. This was so in 1956, the Bundeswehr had hardly taken off, but it was not so in 1973 during the Yom Kippur war when the situation became tense and the Americans did their utmost to help the IDF sustain its punch, while the West German government under, of all people, Willy Brandt sat on the fence, pretended neutrality and denied overflight rights to US supply planes. This may have been forgiven, but not forgotten, and it puts a question mark behind all German protestations to stand by Israel at a time of need. In 1990/91, when Saddam Hussein tried to draw Israel into the war, threatened to use weapons of mass destruction und fired medium range missiles at Tel Aviv, patriot anti-missile-missiles were quickly dispatched from US depots in Gießen/Germany while German officers from the former East German ranks, experts in SCUD-missile-technology from Soviet days, helped Israelis to cope with the threat. Throughout those years military to military-relations were close – but, again, not much advertised: The IDF leadership did not want adverse publicity at home, the Germans were not keen to test Arab or, for that matter, Iranian patience.
During the 1990s however, a new quality of military support was established, reaching into the strategic dimension. While the rest of the world paid little attention, the Israelis, throughout the 1990s, insistently pointed at Iran’s nuclear build-up. The Mossad, military intelligence and the resistance inside Iran had gathered alarming evidence of a nuclear threat emerging in Natanz and other places. Trying to put together a response, Systemtechnik Nord of Bremen, EADS, and Howaldt-Werke of Kiel cooperated with Israeli Aircraft Industries on technologies that the Israelis regarded as essential for their security. Faced with the eventuality of an Iranian first strike capability, Israel, since the 1960s an unacknowledged nuclear power outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty, with air based and ground based systems – the IISS in its annual “Military Balance” cites something like 200 warheads in various configurations – needed a second strike capability, preferably based at sea, and invisible.
The answer came – during the tenure of Helmut Kohl – in the form of three “Dolphin” class submarines, specially fitted to carry cruise missiles where normal boats store their torpedoes. When the boats were ready for delivery, the Bonn coalition had changed. But the red-green government stood by the promises given by its predecessor and allowed the ultra-modern boats, practically inaudible to traditional sonar-listening devices due to their hydrogen-powered turbines, to travel to Israel – and possibly beyond, to the Gulf. The argument given, after the public had gotten wind, was to enhance “stability in the Gulf”. Now, a second tranche is being negotiated. Given the fact that Germany in general is very careful not to sell weapons – in the Israeli case it was part given, part sold – to countries engaged in open conflict, this was an enormous departure. Thus, when the Israeli army needed ball bearings to be fitted to their “Merkava” IV main battle tanks, the German government balked. However, this does not disguise the close links between the countries and on the Israeli side, Steff Wertheimer’s “Iskra” of Galilee and Beersheba is one of several companies cooperating in dual use high technology with German counterparts.
German-Israeli relations also have a special dimension in scientific research. The German Max Planck-Gesellschaft, set up in imperial days to further “big science”, cooperates closely – under the name of “Minerva”, the ancient goddess of wisdom – with the Weizman-Institute in Rehovot. Scientists change places, work in progress is discussed, funds are extended, EU-sources are tapped.
The German-Israeli special relationship is unique among the Europeans, surpassed solely by the US-Israeli bond. It imposes a characteristic ambiguity on German policies towards the Islamic countries of the region. That is why subsequent German governments have tried to reconcile EU policies towards the Palestinians – cf. the early recognition of Arafat’s PLO by the Venice summit in 1981 – with traditional German support for Israel, sometimes in glaring contradiction. Only after the “Oslo-process” in 1993 had changed the overall equation, this rift was healed, up to a point. In the trade dimension, the EU is the key agent, and every German government, prodded on by industry, has tried to insulate bilateral commitments – German-Iranian or German-Saudi for instance – from the continuing Israeli commitment.
Between the EU and Israel the dialogue tends to take the form of independent monologues. EU-bashing has been a favourite Israeli pastime, and European politicians, certainly French president Jacques Chirac, have tended to return the compliment – much to German embarrassment. In 1969 the European summit in The Hague invented European Political Cooperation. Although it was slow to take off, ever since the Maastricht Treaties of 1991, responding to the end of the Cold War, European Common Foreign and Security Policy (GASP) has acquired some meaning, and even European Security and Defence Policy is beginning to take shape – though under much strain.
This of course means that the EU in general, and Germany in particular, are becoming more and more involved in power politics throughout the Greater Middle East. The “Quartet” (UN, EU, US, Russia) continues to try and make sense of the “road map” towards two states in the Holy Land existing side by side. Even more relevantly, the “EU 3″ (France, Germany, UK), have taken the lead in trying to put pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear rise into the wider military dimension. Over many years Germany, in the face of furious US criticism, invested good will in “critical dialogue” with the Iran of the Mullahs, trying to keep trade relations on an even keel – although Siemens cut off assistance with the Busheer nuclear power plant after 1979, which is now being constructed by Russian suppliers.
However, the nuclear threat from Iran towards Israel and the entire Arab world is turning on the heat. Under chancellor Schroeder calls were heard from Berlin that the “military option”, i.e. the US policy of last resort, should be “taken off the table”, thus arguing away a powerful incentive for the Tehran regime to mend its ways. Chancellor Merkel instead has stated that Iran’s acquiring of nuclear weapons would be “unacceptable”, and Russian Defence Minister Sergey Ivanov at the 2007 Munich security conference stated the same. Whatever that is worth on the Russian side, the question remains as to what policies would, if need be, ensue from Ms. Merkel’s statement. It could well be that the Berlin government sends a weak letter with regrets, or that the chancellor sticks to her guns in resisting this outcome and that the coalition falls apart, or anything in between. Sensing this uncertainty, the Israeli ambassador has pointedly asked, in a public statement, what sacrifice the German government would be willing to make.
The Holy Land is not inhabited by angels. It is a key part of a region full of tough antagonism and high risk where policy mistakes are not forgiven and where panaceas are short in supply. There is a time to sit on the fence and a time to take sides. Germany under various chancellors has always tried to avoid stark choices. The Iranian bid for mastery may well require the countries of the EU to stand up and be counted. Dodging the alternative will be a temptation, not only for Berlin. But it will have a stiff price: Making the EU untrustworthy, splitting the Atlantic alliance once more and leaving Israel alone.
Meanwhile, the tectonic plates are shifting, and the Saudi rulers are taking the lead to contain Iran, while putting the Palestinian agenda to the margins. This will force the Europeans, and certainly Germany, into a wider role, as the sun is setting on the Pax Americana. Germany will have to try and keep the EU Three together, whether as a player in the Quartet or part of the EU 3 team negotiating nuclear matters with Iran. In fact there is a chance that the Europeans, so far unable to develop a sustainable and effective framework for their security interests, are being led, par la force des choses, towards a coherent strategy.
Unfortunately, there is also a fair chance to fall apart. One way or the other, Germany will have an important role to play.
This is based on a paper for Aspenia published by Aspen Italia in March 2007. Prof. Dr. Michael Stürmer is Chief Correspondent of Die Welt.