June 8, 2010 | Wall Street Journal

The German-Israeli Special Relationship

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's administration is widely considered to be Israel's most reliable and stalwart ally on the European continent. Israeli-German relations-as enshrined by their own so-called “special relationship”-should not adhere to fluctuating weather patterns.

That helps to explain Mrs. Merkel's powerful declaration about the Iranian nuclear weapons program before the United States Congress last year: “Whoever threatens Israel also threatens us!” In short, the chancellor advocates solidarity forever between Germany and Israel, and positioned Israel's security interests as being integral to those of the Federal Republic. A telling highlight of the chancellor matching her rhetoric with German foreign policy was her unconditional support of Israel's efforts to repel Hamas rocket attacks during last year's Operation Cast Lead war. She remained a lone, brave voice among Europe's feckless leaders during Israel's conflict with Hamas, a group designated by the European Union as a terrorist entity.

Yet a series of recent flip-flops on crucial Iran and anti-terror policies has raised unsettling questions about Germany's understanding of its pledge to advance the security of both countries. Take Mrs. Merkel's announcement last week urging “the Israeli prime minister to lift the blockade of Gaza”-this, after so-called “peace activists,” animated by their sympathy for Hamas, attacked Israeli commandos aboard the Turkish-sponsored Mavi Marmara vessel. It's unclear how Mrs. Merkel reconciles saying Israel ought to suspend its blockade of Iran's proxy regime in Gaza, with her own interior ministry's conclusion that Hamas is determined to obliterate the Jewish state.

In January, Germany was prepared to join a “coalition of the willing” to punish the despotic Iranian regime. During the visit of Israeli President Shimon Peres to Berlin in late January, Mrs. Merkel expressed her resolve to work with “like-minded” countries-independent of meek U.N. Security Council sanctions-to apply “comprehensive sanctions” to force Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program. In February, however, she backtracked in an interview with German daily FAZ and said, “We will coordinate our further actions closely with the European Union; as Europeans we would like to undertake all our steps together.”

The Obama Administration's flawed decision (in line with the mainstream European view) to turn Israel's planned construction of 1,600 apartments in an east Jerusalem neighborhood into the sine qua non of Middle East peace caught on with the German Chancellor. “Why Is Merkel Suddenly Criticizing Israel so Harshly?” asked the popular mass-circulation Bild's headline during her visit to Lebanon last March. By using Lebanon-where another of Tehran's proxies, Hezbollah, helps to shape government policy and whose army mounted a fierce attack on the Jewish state in 2006-as a launching pad for criticism of Israel, Mrs. Merkel did little to reassure Israelis of their “special relationship.”

And then there is thorny problem of German-Iranian trade, which has caused security bells to ring in Israel and the U.S. German technology is helping to bolster Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's drive to go nuclear. While Mrs. Merkel says that trade has been “clearly” reduced with the Iranian regime, the numbers say otherwise. According to the German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce in Hamburg, there has been a significant increase in German exports to Iran, to €385 million in March 2010 from €261 million in March 2009. Between January and March of this year, German exports to Iran increased by 15% compared to the same period in 2009. Meanwhile, Iranian exports to Germany climbed 94% during the first quarter of 2010, compared to last year.

Without question, the time is ripe for Mrs. Merkel to introduce unilateral German sanctions to curb its industry's infatuation with exporting, for example, oil and gas technology to Iran. She could begin by simply removing incentives to do so: In 2009, the Merkel Administration approved  €8.2 million in federal credit guarantees to the German engineering giant Linde to provide technology and high-tech equipment for Iran, including parts for the regime's oil and gas sector.

Mrs. Merkel set a laudable standard when she merged Israel's security with Germany's national interests during her first administration. She still has an amazing opportunity in her second administration to fulfill the promise of a “special relationship” between her country and Israel, but she must act-starting by aggressively confronting the Iranian nuclear threat and Tehran's subsidiaries Hamas and Hezbollah.

A blueprint for action would include Germany imposing crippling sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp, and turning the economic screws on Iran's energy sector. The Merkel government could also, with the swipe of an administrative order, ban Hezbollah in Germany, where it remains a legal political organization with roughly 900 active members. Lastly, Mrs. Merkel could issue tough statements supporting Israel's right to self-defense against pro-Hamas, violent activities dressed up as peace and humanitarian aid efforts.

Anything less would break the promises she herself made to the Israeli-and the German-people.

Mr. Weinthal is a journalist based in Berlin and currently a fellow at the Iran Energy Project at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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