Behind the Headlines Israeli-german Relations on Solid Footing Despite Burdens of the Past
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Behind the Headlines Israeli-german Relations on Solid Footing Despite Burdens of the Past

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When Rolf Pauls, the first West German Ambassador to Israel, presented his credentials to Israeli President Zalman Shazar in the summer of 1965, a poignant moment of history was recorded.

There, in a foyer in Jerusalem, the past merged with the present in what could only be described as an extraordinary ceremony. Twenty years after the collapse of the Third Reich, during which six million European Jews were murdered and starved to death by the Nazis, the representatives of two sovereign nations reached out to each other and made peace.

By all accounts, Israel and West Germany have formed a special relationship since the two established formal diplomatic relations two decades ago. Although it is occasionally burdened by the trauma of the Holocaust, it is on a solid footing in all respects, in the view of diplomats in this sedate German capital on the muddy Rhine.

“Our bilateral relations with West Germany are more extensive perhaps than with any other country except the U.S.,” says Yitzhak Ben-Ari, the Israeli Ambassador to Bonn for the past four years.


Israel, the preeminent military power in the Middle East, and West Germany, the economic behemoth of Europe, enjoy a wide range of relations despite some political differences over the contours of an Arab-Israeli peace settlement.

Trade is booming, and cultural exchanges are far advanced. Tourism, an important factor in the gradual reconciliation between Germans and Jews, is on the upswing again after a partial decline in the wake of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

As a result of German war reparation payments, Israel’s industrial infrastructure is German to an astonishing degree. Israeli highways are filled with cars bearing the margue of Mercedes, BMW or Audi. In German cities like Bonn, Frankfurt, Cologne or Munich, Israeli agricultural produce ranging from strawberries, melons, citrus and avocados are prominently displayed in market stalls. And in smart boutiques, Israeli products from diamonds to swimsuits are among the prime attractions.

In line with the deep relations the two governments have forged, German political leaders have visited Israel on a fairly regular basis. Cancellor Helmut-Kohl paid a 5-day official visit to Israel in the winter of 1984, and Hans-Jochen Vogel, the Social Democrat leader of the opposition, was in the Jewish state recently. Helmut Schmidt, the former Chancellor, turned up in Jerusalem last month, and Bavarian Premier Franz-Josef Strauss flew to Israel in February, after which Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir appeared in Bonn for discussions with Kohl.

Come October, President Richard von Weizsaecker will become the first German head of state to go to Israel. Von Weizaecker visited Jordan and Egypt four months ago, in the first official visit to the Arab world by a German President.

Considered a friend of Israel and the Jewish people, von Weizsaecker left an indelible impression in the minds of many Israelis and Germans by delivering ,a powerful speech marking the 40th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender. Warning that “anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present,” he took issue with one of the most cherished defenses of older Germans vis-a-vis the Holocaust.

“When the unspeakable truth of the Holocaust then became know at the end of the war, ” he said, “all too many of us claimed they had not known anything about it or even suspected anything. Who could remain unsuspecting after the burning of the synagogues, the plundering, the stigmatization with the Star of David, the deprivation of rights, the ceaseless violation of human dignity? Whoever opened his eyes and ears and sought information could not fail to notice that the Jews were being deported.”

With such a dark legacy casting its shadow on Germany history, it is hardly surprising that West Germany has taken special pains to cultivate good relations with Israel, the home of an untold number of survivors.


Although West Germany favors self-determination for the Palestinians and subscribes to a 1980 European Economic Community document calling for the inclusion of the PLO in peace talks, the Germans are particularly sensitive to Israel’s security.

Alois Mertes, the Minister of State For Foreign Affairs, said recently that his nation’s “special responsibility for Israel is an element of credibility and ethics in any good German foreign policy.” In another address, Mertes noted: “On account of our past, we share a special degree of responsibility for Israel’s right to existence and genuine security within recognized boundaries. This responsibility for the survivors of the genocide perpetrated in the name of Germany is an integral part of the ethics and dignity of this democratic and constitutional Germany.”

Kohl, who has referred to himself as “a representative of the new Germany, “has stated that Bonn is “particularly attached to Israel, and we stand up for Israel’s right to live in freedom and security.”

(Tomorrow: Part II)

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