*Co-authored with Mr. Gert Weisskirchen.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will step down after 16 years in office. A devoted friend of Israel throughout her time in office, she may continue to strengthen Israel’s alliance with Germany.
Her planned visit to Israel this week came at a peculiar time. Only weeks before an election takes place to determine the identity of her successor, Chancellor Merkel is a lame duck at home. She forfeited leadership of her party in 2018, hoping to enable a smooth and easy transition for her successor, a step that proved miscalculated. Her destined successor retired prematurely from the race and her own ability to lead the country, especially through the Covid pandemic, was undermined.
All the while, Israeli leaders that were planning to meet her – the new Prime Minister for the first time, the President, and the Foreign Minister – are still not familiar with the candidates that may take the helm from Ms. Merkel.
We have worked with most of them for much of the past two decades, and followed the development of their political careers. None of them will be like Merkel, who throughout her years in power worked to keep a German-Israel alliance alive and kicking. Even when in practice the relationship declined, during the recent years under Prime Minister Netanyahu, Merkel’s friendship remained a cornerstone of Israel’s security.
Netanyahu and Merkel did not communicate regularly and their respective teams lacked the warmth that characterized, for example, the relations between Merkel’s previous top advisor, Christoph Heusgen, and Shalom Turgeman, who served under then Israeli Premier Ehud Olmert. Nonetheless, Merkel reiterated in clear terms, accompanied by concrete actions, the commitment of Germany to Israel’s security and wellbeing. In style and content, Merkel belongs to a generation that is loyal to Israel and straightforward – confident enough to criticize at times, yet reassuring of the deep-rooted friendship.
Her potential successors belong to a different generation, for which commitment to Israel is derived less from emotions and more from political considerations. But it certainly exists. The current leading candidate on behalf of Merkel’s own CDU party, Mr. Armin Laschet, is anchored in the mainstream of his party’s view on Israel and will probably follow Merkel’s tradition. Top candidate on behalf of the center-left SPD, Mr. Olaf Scholz, is a decent and reliable friend of Israel and will follow a similar line. We are less familiar with the views towards Israel by the third leading candidate for Chancellorship, Green party candidate Ms. Annalena Baerbock. She did pronounce clear opposition to German arm sales to conflict regions, in the context of the Germany-Israel submarine deal, a step that was heavily criticized in and outside her party.
As she steps down, Merkel may help Israel renew the annual Association Council meeting with the EU’s top echelons. These inter-ministerial meetings were halted in 2012, as part of a general cooling of relations between Israel and Europe. Renewing them is currently high on the Israeli agenda and should be a relatively easy goal to achieve.
Alongside hailing Israel’s progress towards peace with the Gulf countries, Merkel cannot ignore the Palestinian plight. But she may contribute by pronouncing a realistic European vision on the two-state solution, a desirable solution yet one that requires a functioning Palestinian government and a willing Israeli partner. Merkel can also bring Israel a step closer to Europe by endorsing its joining the Horizon Europe funding program for research and innovation at an optimal level.
A more meaningful and lasting way for Merkel to stay involved and helpful to Israel upon retiring, would be chairing a group of “Elder Wise Personalities” of Israel and Germany, one that takes an alliance into consideration for laying out perspectives for a common future of both countries in the context of the Mediterranean region.
The components and nature of their alliance may forever change, due to generational and geopolitical shifts, but thoughtful planning by Merkel and others sharing her commitment, could guarantee the especial relations Germany and Israel share, would indeed stay unique.
*This article is co-authored with Mr. Gert Weisskirchen, former German politician and member of the SPD party, and a co-creator alongside the author, of ELNET-Germany.