Home Europe Is Germany’s support for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza wavering?

Is Germany’s support for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza wavering?

by editor

JERUSALEM — German leaders declare Israel’s security to be a raison d’etre for the German republic — or, as they call it, a “Staatsräson.”

As German Chancellor Olaf Scholz put it during a visit to Israel shortly after the Hamas attack of Oct. 7: “German history and our responsibility arising from the Holocaust make it our duty to stand up for the existence and security of the State of Israel.” 

But during a trip to Jerusalem this week, months into Israel’s retaliatory military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, struck a far different tone.

“The security of the people in Israel is just as important as the survival of the Palestinians,” she told reporters in Jerusalem.

In most countries, that would be an uncontroversial claim. But for German leaders, who have been particularly reluctant to openly criticize Israeli policies, it suggests the beginning of a potentially significant shift.

The change is by no means a radical departure from Germany’s longstanding support of Israel. Baerbock still backed Israel’s right to defend against “terrorists who hide like cowards behind civilians,” as she put it in Jerusalem.

But as international alarm over civilian deaths in Gaza rises — and as world leaders urge Israel’s government to refrain from launching a ground invasion of Rafah, the southern Gaza city where more than 1 million Palestinians have sought refuge — German leaders are under growing pressure to push Israel’s government to change course.

“If Israel starts an extended military operation in Rafah, it would be a predictable humanitarian catastrophe,” Baerbock said during her trip. Her words echoed French President Emmanuel Macron, who earlier this week expressed France’s “firm opposition to an Israeli offensive in Rafah, which could only lead to a humanitarian disaster of a new magnitude.”

Baerbock’s rhetorical shift is happening against the backdrop of growing scepticism of Germany’s approach to Israel among world leaders, including in the EU, where heads of government have been far more vocal in their criticism of the Israeli military campaign. This week, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar sent a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen calling for an “urgent review” of the EU-Israel Association Agreement, which governs their trade relations, arguing that Israel may be in breach of human rights obligations embedded in the pact.

While support for Israel remains higher among people in Germany than in many other European countries, it has receded over the course of the war, polls show. The death toll in Gaza has surpassed 28,000 people, according to the Gazan health ministry.

Amid the shifting backdrop, the question is whether Baerbock has any influence over Israeli policy to begin with, particularly as the leaders of the United States, Israel’s most powerful ally, have struggled to influence Israeli leaders and have criticized their conduct of the war far more bluntly.  Earlier in February, U.S. President Joe Biden called Israel’s military response “over the top.”

Baerbock’s trip to Jerusalem this week was her fifth trip to the region since the Oct. 7 attack. At home, she has drawn criticism, especially from conservatives, who have alleged that she has accomplished little else other than drawing domestic press attention to herself.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock is attempting to establish Germany as a key mediator in the region. | Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images

Baerbock is attempting to establish Germany as a key mediator in the region, though it’s far from clear the effort will yield tangible results. During this trip, she met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time since the war began; the talk lasted for 90 minutes, during which time she urged Netanyahu to engage in a peace process that he is inherently skeptical of.

That’s likely why Baerbock made it clear to reporters in Jerusalem that Germany’s Staatsräson is a pledge to support the interests of the Israeli people, not necessarily the government that now represents them.

As the war drags on, that may be a distinction that is unlikely to sway events on the ground.

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