More weapons and fewer pastors: Germany’s new coalition has plans for Israel and Palestine

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel an her successor, Chancellor Olaf Scholz (Reuters)

Shir Hever

Middle East Eye  /  December 14, 2021

The SDP-Green-FDP coalition plans to increase arms and surveillance tech purchases from Israeli firms, and has described Israel’s security as a ‘reason of state’.

After all the promises of election campaigns, Germans often find they have a clearer idea of what their new government’s plan to achieve when coalition agreements are published.

When it comes to the nascent SDP-Green-FDP coalition, the parties’ agreement was published on 24 November and includes some interesting changes, as well as continuations, compared with the Angela Merkel era towards Israel and Palestine.

We find Israel and Palestine discussed towards the end of the 177-page document earmarked for Middle East policy, beginning with a commitment to consider Israel’s security Germany’s “reason of state”. That term was used by the previous government and widely understood in German political circles to mean that Germany’s support for Israel supersedes public opinion or democratic decision-making processes.

The contract proceeds to explain that good relations with Israel mean shielding it from criticism at the UN. It expects the Palestinian Authority to crack down on violence against Israel, not making a similar expectation from the occupying power in Palestine.

The newly appointed foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, is a young Green politician who has had few public words to say about Israel/Palestine so far. It remains to be seen how she will implement this vision.

“Baerbock is just as pro-Israeli as the previous government was with Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister [Heiko] Maas, if not more so,” Annette Groth, a former Left Party MP, told Middle East Eye.

Striking deals

In fact, relations with Israel are discussed earlier in the text, albeit opaquely.

The coalition agreement speaks about acquiring armed drones for the German army. What is not mentioned, however, is that the company already contracted to provide Heron-TP combat drones is Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI). For years the SPD resisted calls to arm the German military with armed drones, but the new coalition it leads has already made it clear that such weapons will be part of its forthcoming strategy.

Similarly, the new government promises to invest more in cyber security and to obtain advanced cyber surveillance technology – when Germany has already purchased such tech from Israel’s Candiru.

Die Zeit has also previously revealed that the German police purchased the controversial Pegasus spyware from Israel’s NSO Group, despite it being linked to several abuses by various authoritarian governments. The police claims that the spyware was never used.

With this in mind, the new German coalition’s definition of “reason of state” appears more closely aligned with arms deals and security cooperation with Israeli arms manufacturers than diplomatic policy in the Middle East.

Eldad Beck, columnist in right-wing Israeli newspaper Israel Hayomclaims that the German government’s true interest lies in increasing trade with Iran, and expects the coalition to back the revival of the 2015 JCPOA nuclear agreement.

Indeed, Germany is Iran’s largest trading partner, and in 2020 German exports to Iran amounted to 1.8bn euros ($2bn). For Germany, however, Iran is only the 58th largest trading partner. Meanwhile, in 2019, Germany exported goods and services to Israel worth 5.2bn euros. Israel is Germany’s 42nd biggest trading partner.

Germany’s support for the JCPOA is therefore not because of its economic interests regarding Iran and Israel, but despite of it, and may have more to do with the German government’s interest in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

It is widely perceived in Germany that Russia and China are the country’s main adversaries, and politicians hope that the JCPOA can keep Iran from aligning itself with those countries.

Retreating religiosity

Another important facet of the new coalition, which will likely impact on Germany’s relations with the Middle East, is that the incoming government is the least religious in the history of Germany since the reunification of east and west.

The new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, defines himself as unaffiliated with any church, and did not add the words “so help me God” to his oath of office upon being sworn in. In addition, six ministers in the cabinet define themselves as religiously unaffiliated, and one, the new minister of agriculture Cem Ozdemir, defines himself as a “secular Muslim”.

Traditionally, an overwhelming number of the prominent German politicians were Protestant Christians. With the Christian Democratic Union in the opposition for the first time since 2005, the influence of the Protestant church over German politics is expected to be smaller than ever.

This fact is of special importance to the relationship between Germany and Israel, because of the deeply theological perspective that German politicians hold towards the country. Ulrich Duchrow, a retired theologian from the University of Heidelberg, told MEE that the German Protestant church in 2017 vowed to engage with Israel/Palestine by acknowledging and engaging with the Christian tradition’s antisemitism following the Nazi genocide of Jews.

“The church struck a deal: the forgiveness of German guilt is bought with the avoidance of clear criticism of the international law and human rights crimes of the State of Israel. The Rhenish branch of the church even considers the State of Israel as a ‘sign of God’s faithfulness’,” he said.

Because the new coalition is less bound to the tenets of the Protestant church as any government before it, it has more freedom to criticize Israeli violations of international law.

Notably, the new coalition agreement mentions that Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank is illegal under international law.

Shir Hever is a board member of the Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East