Berlin Cable

Oct 24, 2023

Squaring the Circle

Germany has strongly sided with Israel in the aftermath of the brutal attack by Hamas, and for good reasons. However, this poses questions for German foreign policy that will be difficult to address.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, left, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023.
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Hamas’ horrific and inhumane attacks on southern Israel on October 7—slaughtering over 1,400 Israelis and others, including women, children, babies, and the elderly, most of them civilians, and kidnapping over 200 to keep as hostages—has shocked and likely changed Israel: the state built to make sure that Jews who, over centuries, had suffered pogroms and ultimately, the Holocaust, could live in safety saw a pogrom perpetrated within its own borders. It will likely change the Middle East, too.

It has also given Germany another external shock on a similar scale to Russia’s launching its war of annihilation against Ukraine a year and a half earlier. But there is less of a sense where it will lead the country.

“Solidarity” with Israel

For the generations currently in political power (and one would hope to think, the majority of Germans at large), the reaction was clear and quite determined: to stand by Israel’s side. This intuitive reaction extended to the (German) European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who visited Israel as one of the first foreign politicians after the mass murder, and got a lot of criticism for her alleged “one-sidedness”.

For many in Germany’s political classes, the line leading from places like Babyn Jar near Kyiv, where German forces murdered over 33,000 Jewish men, women, and children within 48 hours on September 29-30, 1941, to the Kibbutzins in southern Israel devasted by Hamas’ murderers on October 7 is a straight one. Germany’s vice chancellor, the Greens’ Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck, made this clear in a video message. The same sort of genocidal nihilism was at work here that is also espoused by Iran, a key backer both militarily and financially of Hamas, whose professed aim—often overlooked in Berlin—is the annihilation of Israel. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats (SPD) was quite clear in his subsequent warnings addressed to Teheran not to escalate the war.

However, the professed “solidarity” with Israel has thrown up questions Germany will need to find more convincing answers for than it has done in the past.

Israel’s security as Germany’s raison d’état

Germany’s leadership and main opposition are united in their conviction that, as Scholz has said repeatedly, “Israel’s security is Germany’s Staatsräson” (raison d’état or reason of state). He also used the sentence in Tel Aviv when visiting his counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu even before US President Joe Biden did.

Scholz’ predecessor Angela Merkel coined the sentence in 2007 in a speech at the United Nations and repeated it the following year when addressing the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. However, Germany’s long-serving chancellor never spelled out what this reference to a pre-modern and pre-democratic term would mean in practice.

Taken at face value, it cannot mean anything else than, should Israel’s security be fundamentally threatened, Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, would defend the country together with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). This idea was somewhat abstract until October 7, and is now somewhat less so. Still, it is a bitter irony of recent history that the chancellor who oversaw the hallowing out of Germany’s military made this promise in a colossal mismatch of aims and means.

Linked to this is Germany’s practical powerlessness when it comes to deterring Iran and its puppet Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, which may open a second front once the IDF moves into Gaza, in the ground operation that is widely expected. Berlin has returned two (!) leased drones to the IDF and promised to supply ammunitions for war ships as requested by Tel Aviv; in contrast to the run-up to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the principal question of supplying military materiel to Israel if needed is not a point of much discussion. But given the state of the Bundeswehr, there is not much Germany can offer beyond this, other than trying to incentivize Middle Eastern rulers using economic means to do their bidding, in keeping the war contained.

A Delicate Balance

It has also led to accusations of hypocrisy. Israel’s response so far, a “complete blockade” of the Gaza strip including the cutting off of water supplies and electricity combined with an intense bombing campaign to destroy Hamas’ infrastructure and leadership, risks overshadowing the original crime. While not saying so in public, the German government, together with Israel’s other allies and led by Washington, is trying to convince the Israeli war cabinet that its operations against Hamas need to respect international law. It is also advocating for humanitarian relief in Gaza.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, at the meeting of EU foreign ministers on October 23, spoke of “squaring the circle,” saying: “We’ve all seen that the terrorism continues non-stop, that massive rocket attacks against Israel are taking place,” she said. “We can’t end the humanitarian catastrophe when the terrorism from Gaza continues.” “Germany and the European Union stand side by side with Israel,” Baerbock added, “while we are doing everything possible to ensure that the human suffering in Gaza is being reduced.” However, Hamas’ strategy of hiding behind and using as human shields those it is claiming to fight for, i.e., Palestinian civilians, will make it near-impossible for the IDF to defeat Hamas and the international community to improve the situation of the Palestinians trapped in Gaza in parallel. Already, the Hamas-controlled authorities have said that more than 5,000 Palestinians have been killed since October 7. While these claims have not been independently verified, they are widely accepted, including by the United Nations.

This puts Germany and other Europeans on the spot, with regional leaders asking—for instance during a “peace summit” in Egypt on October 21 which Baerbock attended—why they would condemn Russia’s actions against Ukraine but not Israel’s against Gaza. While the comparison is deeply flawed, it will make the strengthening of relations with countries of the so-called Global South, a priority for both Scholz and Baerbock, ever more complicated. And while short-term support for Ukraine, according to experts, is unlikely to be affected, the effects of a drawn-out Israel-Hamas war will ultimately also test Germany’s and Europe’s standing power in their quest of bolstering Ukraine “as long as it takes.”

Disquiet on German Streets

There is also a domestic element. Hamas’ atrocities were greeted by some people during public demonstrations, leading to the Hamas front organization, the Samidoun network, being outlawed. Antisemitic and anti-Israel incidences are on the rise, while pro-Palestinian protesters are feeling criminalized. This situation might be further exploited by the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which has been extending its summer high in the polls (climbing above 20 percent support), mainly as a result of dissatisfaction with the Scholz government and anti-migration rhetoric. With far-left icon Sahra Wagenknecht, who this week announced the formation of her own left populist party on a strong anti-immigration platform, entering in the fray, the Israel-Hamas war and Germany’s immigration debate have already started to converge.

It is unclear yet what lessons the Scholz government, which has two years left before the next general election, is drawing. One should be that the reestablishment of Germany’s military capacity as well as Europe’s (as a strong European pillar of NATO) is of paramount importance and needs to be pursued with a more financial resources, and a higher sense of urgency, than until now. Today’s world is a much more dangerous place than most Germans still prefer to think.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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