BERLIN, Aug. 14 (JTA) — With Germany considering offering peacekeeping troops in southern Lebanon, politicians and Jewish leaders are weighing in on what the German army’s role should be. The once-theoretical question of whether Germans in uniforms should help patrol southern Lebanon has taken on a practical urgency since Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert earlier this month asked for German troops to participate, going against years of opposition from Holocaust survivors and others in Israel. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has not taken a firm stand. So far, she has said only that she could imagine providing training to Lebanese police and soldiers. Meanwhile, some say the debate shows the weakness in the government coalition between Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Party. In in particular, a statement by SDP head Kurt Beck in favor of sending German troops has drawn opposition from some Christian Democratic lawmakers. As in past international conflicts, some politicians are using the Holocaust as a justification for their positions on sending troops. Beck was the first leading politician in the government to back the participation of German soldiers in a peace-keeping force. He told the ARD TV news program that “There will clearly not be a ‘No’ ” to such a request, adding that he could “well imagine that one could start with assisting in securing the coast.” But more politicians tend to side with Edmund Stoiber, the Christian Democratic Union’s governor of the state of Bavaria, who is strictly opposed to the participation of combat troops. Because of the Holocaust,“We have to help Israel with other means than military” ones, Stoiber said. Some prominent members of Germany’s Jewish community seem willing to back the idea of German soldiers, to an extent. Solomon Korn, vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told the Saarbruecher Zeitung newspaper that he could imagine “coming to a compromise: German soldiers yes, but not directly on the front.” Michel Friedman, head of Keren Hayesod in Germany, supported Olmert’s request. He told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper: “If Germany can send soldiers to Afghanistan and Congo, then the historical moment has arrived when Germany should show the true colors of its support for Israel, and take responsibility. “The countless soapbox speeches about the special responsibility to Israel must be followed by deeds,” he added. Defense expert Hans-Peter Bartels told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper he could imagine the involvement of German transport troops or medics, rather than combat-ready troops — because of “the history,” an indirect reference to the Holocaust. German troops must not be within firing range of Israel, said Wolfgang Huber, head of the Protestant Church in Germany. “We must not forget about our history,” Huber said. Korn agreed, saying that it would be at least uncomfortable for both Germans and Israelis if there is a military confrontation between their troops. “For all those who survived the National Socialist crimes, and also for their children and grandchildren, it could unleash feelings that would be better not to have,” he said. A high-level discussion on the matter is due to be held Wednesday in Berlin, and it’s possible that the Parliament’s summer break may be interrupted if a vote is needed.
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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.