BERLIN, Dec. 10 (JTA) — Israel is no closer to getting the tanks it has requested from Germany, despite the warm welcome Israeli President Moshe Katsav received this week in Berlin. During a meeting Monday with Katsav, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said Germany will soon deliver the Patriot missile batteries Israel has requested. Germany considers the batteries a defensive weapon in case of an Iraqi missile attack on Israel. But many German officials consider the Fuchs tanks offensive weapons, and are concerned that Israel may use them against Palestinians. Katsav, who made a three-day visit to Germany this week on the invitation of German President Johannes Rau, confirmed Tuesday that Schroeder would not commit to delivery of the tanks during their meeting. Schroeder and Katsav reportedly discussed the possible delivery of additional German military technology to Israel. Neither Katsav nor Schroeder elaborated on what that technology might be, but Schroeder told reporters he was prepared to help Israel on the basis of German law. Much has been made in recent days of the German law prohibiting the delivery of weapons to war zones. Protesters from across the political spectrum have cited this law to argue that Israel should not receive the German tanks. The debate is emblematic of a tougher attitude toward Israel in today’s Germany, 58 years after the end of the Holocaust. The generation that supported Israel out of a sense of guilt over the Holocaust — or out of a feeling that the former victims are guiltless — has been replaced by one with a sense of responsibility to prevent war and genocide in general. In addition, the old one-sided, positive view of Israel has been replaced among some Germans by a one-sided, negative view. Observers say such sentiments sometimes generate statements that relativize the Holocaust, turning the Nazis’ former victims into persecutors of Palestinians — a position the German government rejects. Most German politicians stress the country’s special relationship with Israel, and Germany is Israel’s second biggest economic partner after the United States. But German politicians are also subject to pressure from the decidedly pro-Palestinian European Union, which is seeking to define its role in the world political arena. Current German policy toward Israel and the Palestinian Authority resembles the “constructive engagement” model generally reserved for putting pressure on trouble-making regimes. Germany long has sold weapons to Israel. But in early 2002, as a national election campaign was about to begin, politicians across the spectrum indicated that they were under pressure from constituents to justify continued weapons sales to Israel — portrayed by German media as the aggressor against the Palestinians — and to end the tradition of unconditional support for the Jewish state. The current discussion emerged after news broke in mid-November that Israel had renewed its request for Germany’s surplus Patriot missiles. An Israeli Defense Ministry spokeswoman said in late November that the request was made some time ago, after Israel learned that Germany intended to withdraw the Patriot batteries from possible use. On Dec. 4, a spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy in Berlin confirmed that Israeli officials had met with German officials and had been assured that the Patriots would be provided. Schroeder subsequently confirmed his approval, based on Germany’s commitment to “do everything to guarantee Israel’s security.” But when it became clear that Israel also wanted tanks, politicians from pacifistic or pro-Palestinian camps objected. Israel’s destruction of homes belonging to the families of suicide bombers — which Israeli officials say has helped prevent numerous terror attacks — has received much negative press here. The Palestinian Authority joined the debate, asking Germany not to deliver the tanks and accusing Israel of using “most dangerous bombs, poison gas and depleted uranium against Palestinian civilians.” Israeli officials have dismissed such Palestinian claims as ridiculous. But the debate over supplying Israel with German tanks goes on.
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Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teen-agers.