German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Israel this week was seen as a veritable love-fest, reinforcing the perception that the once strained Israeli-European relationship is returning to more solid ground.
One observer, Gil Yaron, a journalist for several leading German newspapers, told Israel television that Merkel’s speech to the Knesset — the first by a German head of government — “seemed almost as though it was written by [Likud Party leader] Benjamin Netanyahu. It was completely along the Israeli line. It recognized Iran as a global threat, as a threat not only to Israel but to Germany. And she said that in a time of need Germany would not just stand idly by. … It was everything Israel could have wished for.”
Yossi Alpher, a political analyst and an editor of the Israeli-Palestinian Web site bitterlemons.org, said Merkel’s remarks, however, were not unexpected.
“Don’t expect a German prime minister in Israel to criticize Israel,” he said. “This is Germany after the Shoah, and this is how any prime minister, including Merkel, talks. Any prime minister of Germany feels he or she has to address Israel’s security issues.”
Noting that 10 members of the Knesset walked out to protest Merkel delivering her speech in German, a language offensive to many Jews because of the Holocaust, Alpher said that Merkel “understood their emotions” and so began her remarks in Hebrew “to try to soften it.”
He said the German government has helped Israel defend itself, selling three state-of-the-art Dolphin submarines to the Jewish State. The vessels reportedly are capable of launching missiles that could carry nuclear warheads. They are already in service and two more are slated to be delivered by 2010.
“This is a long-term agreement that began with German guilt over having sold dual-use chemicals to Saddam Hussein just before the first Gulf war,” Alpher said.
Relations between Israel and Germany are at a high point, and Merkel is believed to have genuinely warm feelings toward Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert describes her as a “close confidante.”
At a Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial on Monday, a visibly moved Merkel declared that Germany accepted responsibility for its Nazi past — which she said filled Germans “with shame” — and was determined to work together with Israel for a common future.
The bond between Germany and Israel, as well as Israel’s warm relations with both France and Britain, are indicative of changes that have occurred as the United States has become weaker internationally, according to Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. He said the relationships also reflect a growing European concern about Iran developing nuclear weapons and appreciation of Israel’s position.
“These three major governments are talking tougher regarding Iran,” he observed. “The frayed relationship with Europe is being improved.”
But Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that although the leaders may be “expressing more support and solidarity with Israel than in the past, we will have to wait for opinion polls to see if there is a change in the number of people [in Europe] who hate Israel. It was extremely high.”
He said public opinion depends not only on what European leaders have to say about Israel but “what happens in the field in terms of terrorist attacks and Israel’s response.”
Egypt this week continued its efforts to try to hammer out a formal cease-fire between Israel and Hamas even as both sides have stopped attacking one another. The occasional rocket fired from Gaza into Israel is reportedly coming from another terrorist group, Islamic Jihad. Two weeks ago, more than 120 Palestinians in Gaza and three Israelis were killed in a barrage of Hamas rocket and missile attacks and Israeli reprisal raids.
That bloodshed only served to strengthen Hamas in the minds of Gaza residents, according to a recent Palestinian poll of 1,270 Gaza residents. Conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, it found that support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for re-election, were a new vote to be held now, had slipped in three months from 56 percent to just 46 percent. Hamas’ former prime minister, Ismail Haniya was favored by 47 percent of those polled compared to only 37 percent three months ago.
The poll found also that 84 percent of Palestinians supported the Palestinian terrorist attack on a Jerusalem yeshiva that killed eight students — the greatest support for violence in the survey’s 15 years — and that 75 percent believed peace talks with Israel were fruitless and should be terminated. Nevertheless, if parliamentary elections were to be held today, Abbas’ Fatah Party would win 42 percent of the vote compared to 35 percent for Hamas.
Few observers were hopeful of achieving a lasting cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.
“We are very far from being able to solve it,” said Stephen Cohen, a national scholar at the Israel Policy Forum. “We don’t have an effective strategy for resolving the problem. We are pursing a strategy of just trying to contain but not solve it.”
Wolfsfeld of Hebrew University said a major stumbling block is the Hamas demand that Israel extend the cease-fire to the entire West Bank, where Israel has continued efforts to arrest Palestinian terrorists.
Steinberg said that Hamas’ continued detention Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalt was another stumbling block. He was kidnapped in a cross-border raid in 2006.
Steinberg said he could not imagine any Israeli leader reaching an agreement with Hamas about Gaza “while Shalit was still there.”
JTA also contributed to this report. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.