What’s in a Name? The German-Israeli Partnership: Is it a Special Relationship, a Friendship, an Alliance, or Reconciliation?

Lily Gardner Feldman

Senior Fellow

Dr. Lily Gardner Feldman is a Senior Fellow at AICGS. She previously served as the Harry & Helen Gray Senior Fellow at AICGS and directed the Institute’s Society, Culture & Politics Program. She has a PhD in Political Science from MIT.

From 1978 until 1991, Dr. Gardner Feldman was a professor of political science (tenured) at Tufts University in Boston. She was also a Research Associate at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies, where she chaired the German Study Group and edited German Politics and Society; and a Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs, where she chaired the Seminar on the European Community and undertook research in the University Consortium for Research on North America. From 1990 until 1995, Dr. Gardner Feldman was the first Research Director of AICGS and its Co-director in 1995. From 1995 until 1999, she was a Senior Scholar in Residence at the BMW Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University. She returned to Johns Hopkins University in 1999.

Dr. Gardner Feldman has published widely in the U.S. and Europe on German foreign policy, German-Jewish relations, international reconciliation, non-state entities as foreign policy players, and the EU as an international actor. Her latest publications are: Germany’s Foreign Policy of Reconciliation: From Enmity to Amity, 2014; “Die Bedeutung zivilgesellschaftlicher und staatlicher Institutionen: Zur Vielfalt und Komplexität von Versöhnung,” in Corine Defrance and Ulrich Pfeil, eds., Verständigung und Versöhnung, 2016; and “The Limits and Opportunities of Reconciliation with West Germany During the Cold War: A Comparative Analysis of France, Israel, Poland and Czechoslovakia” in Hideki Kan, ed., The Transformation of the Cold War and the History Problem, 2017 (in Japanese). Her work on Germany’s foreign policy of reconciliation has led to lecture tours in Japan and South Korea.

As the German and Israeli cabinets assembled in late February in Jerusalem for their fifth set of bilateral consultations since 2008, most of the statements and speeches focused on the multiple concrete achievements and future joint projects of this remarkable relationship. There were also a few general allusions to deep “friendship” and characterizations of ties as “unique” and special.

The appellations for framing ties in international relations are frequently applied without thought to their deeper meaning or political consequences. However, in German-Israeli relations, short-hand descriptions for relations are deliberate, not idle, and convey both content and purpose. This essay will address the nature of these characterizations by Germans and Israelis; the policies they reflect; and which of the labels best capture the essence of the German-Israeli partnership.

Short-hand Markers

Since Chancellor Angela Merkel’s major speech to the Israeli Knesset in March 2008, a sampling of speeches and statements by German and Israeli heads of state and government and by foreign ministers reveals the dominance of the term “special relationship” to characterize ties, followed by frequent use of the concept of “friendship”; references to “reconciliation” and “alliance” remain scant. Leaders’ language demonstrates the importance of memory, values, and interests at the heart of the German-Israeli partnership and the idea that differences are an integral part of the connection.

German Terms

In her speech to the Knesset, Chancellor Merkel suggested why the connection between German and Israel is special in terms of perpetual memory, expressed in commemoration, and practical interests, manifested in policy preferences:

Germany and Israel are and will always remain linked in a special way by the memory of the Shoah. …Respect for our common humanity is rooted in our responsibility for the past. We often say that Germany and Israel are linked by a special, unique relationship. But what precisely is meant by this ‘unique relationship’? Is my country aware of the import of these words – not just when repeated in speeches and at ceremonial events, but also when deeds are called for?…Israel and Germany… are…partners – linked by shared values, linked by shared challenges and linked by shared interests. For stability, economic prosperity, security and peace, both in Europe and in this region, are in our mutual interest…We can be strengthened by something that has aided us in past decades – the power of trust.

Four years later, in a December 2012 press conference with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, she added a further dimension of special relations, the ability to address, manage, and overcome conflicting policy views: “Relations are untouchable and can withstand differing opinions. [These differences] must be discussed among friends.”

Germany’s foreign minister in the last Merkel government, Guido Westerwelle, was less instinctually attuned than Merkel to Israel as a Jewish and Zionist state, but he still accepted the basic aspects of Merkel’s notion of “specialness,” played out in the reality of “friendship.” In May 2012, he suggested:

Germany and Israel have a unique relationship. …Trust and friendship also mean we are allowed to have different opinions… Israel is a democracy that can take criticism of others…Germany’s historic responsibility has no expiry date.

He went on to add two new terms to the German lexicon for describing ties with Israel: “reconciliation” and “allies.” A year later Westerwelle made clear the meaning of “friends”:

Friendship is from our understanding more than a partnership. This is not only a strategic alliance, this is a friendship between societies, between peoples and between governments.

Germany’s president, Joachim Gauck, recognized, in May 2012, the ongoing “special relationship” à la Merkel, based on “responsibility” and the “Holocaust’s crimes against humanity,” but he also shared Westerwelle’s sense of “reconciliation” and “friendship”:

After the Holocaust and the war our two countries created something historic: reconciliation and understanding, deemed impossible. It was possible because Israel demonstrated trust in Germany…Israel is one of Germany’s most important partners and friends.

Israeli Linguistic Preferences

Israeli leaders have shared Germany’s terminology to frame the German-Israeli relationship, but with somewhat different emphases. In January 2011, Prime Minister Netanyahu summed up the relationship:

We are allies… we have a great desire to strengthen our bilateral cooperation.” In April, Netanyahu broadened his conception of the relationship:  “Our discussions have taken place in an atmosphere of trust and friendship.

The prime minister repeated the themes in a joint press conference with Chancellor Merkel in December 2012 and acknowledged her formulation of the special relationship. He later took up German leaders’ theme of space in the relationship for policy differences and criticism:

I would be insincere if I didn’t say I was disappointed …by the German vote in the UN [on Palestinian Authority observer status membership]. People know that there is a special relationship between Germany and Israel.

The highly pragmatic Netanyahu, unlike most of his predecessors, did not dwell on the Holocaust as shaping the German-Israeli special relationship, preferring to assume it as the unstated basis of ties and invoking it more for contemporary regional challenges, particularly the threat Iran posed for instigating a second Holocaust.

Netanyahu’s foreign minister, Avigdor Liberman, did reference the past in a ceremony inaugurating a new Israeli consulate in Munich in April 2011:

Bavaria, and Munich in particular, holds special significance as the cradle of the National Socialist Nazi movement… Today Germany stands alongside Israel…and [Minister President] Seehofer…continues this tradition of friendship and commitment to the special relationship with Israel.

The indelible imprint of the Holocaust for him personally, for Jews, and for the state of Israel was the centerpiece of President Shimon Peres’ address to the Bundestag on January 27, 2010. He also noted how German and Israeli leaders connected in a process of mutuality and reciprocity:

[They] stretched their hands out one to the other, from the two sides of the abyss…in a friendship that was established …not …at the expense of forsaking the memory of the Holocaust, but from the memory of the dark hours of the past.

Peres went beyond the internal dimensions of relations between Germany and Israel by introducing for them as a unit the external, universal idea of “Tikkun Olam–putting the world aright.”

In a 2012 interview, akin to other leaders, Peres conceived of friction in relations between friends, but not so deep as to derail the partnership.

German-Israeli Ties in Practice: Remembrance and Interests

German and Israeli leaders have condensed the relationship into quick formulations, but also have referred to its content: the presence of the past and remembrance and responsibility; the role of pragmatic, common interests and policy preferences within the bilateral relationship and beyond; contention over interests, particularly vis-à-vis the Palestinian question; the need for reciprocity; the importance of common values and trust, but also of criticism.

The February 2014 bilateral cabinet consultations reflected the dualities of German-Israeli relations: past and present; cooperation and contestation; positive and negative dimensions. These dualities have been a hallmark of German-Israeli relations since the early 1950s when both sides commenced an improbable partnership, motivated by both moral and pragmatic considerations.


Paralleling the important work of civil society, the German government has been active in dealing with the past through monitoring and actively fighting anti-Semitism; through commitment to the security of the state of Israel; and through commemoration. Foreign Minister Westerwelle’s May 2013 speech to the World Jewish Congress in Budapest, denouncing anti-Semitism, was an impassioned act of solidarity with Jews worldwide and with Israel. The Bundestag resolution on anti-Semitism a month later was even more explicit:

Solidarity with Israel is an integral part of German raison d’état. Whoever participates in demonstrations in which Israeli flags are burnt and anti-Semitic language is expressed, is no partner in the fight against anti-Semitism. Solidarity with terrorist and anti-Semitic groups like Hamas and Hezbollah goes beyond the boundaries of legitimate criticism of Israeli policy.

In December 2012, the joint declaration following the fourth iteration of German-Israeli cabinet consultations emphasized the two countries’ “total engagement for human rights and for the fight against all forms of anti-Semitism and racism,” a commitment reprised in the February 2014 bilateral talks.

Israeli leaders’ frequent praise for Germany’s staunch fight against anti-Semitism was manifested most clearly during the German cabinet’s recent visit when President Peres bestowed on Chancellor Merkel the highest civilian award in Israel, the Presidential Medal of Distinction.

In the medal ceremony, Peres also lauded Merkel for her consistent support of Israel’s existence: “Your commitment to Israel’s security and to the cause of peace is set in stone.” In almost every statement Chancellor Merkel makes regarding Israel, she forges a connection between the horrors of the past and the need to stand by the Jewish state. Just before travelling to Israel in February, she formulated this link in crystalline words:

[Because] of the past, we have an obligation to the state of Israel. For the Shoah was unique and calls on us to constantly draw lessons from this history. And for me, [one of those lessons] is that Israel’s right to exist is Germany’s raison d’état.

In addition to drawing concrete policy lessons from history, Germany and Israel have also honored victims through commemoration. In recent years, four symbolic events stand out:

  • President Peres’ speech to the Bundestag in January 2010;
  • Chancellor Merkel’s speech at Tel Aviv University in February 2011;
  • The joint participation of Foreign Minister Westerwelle and Prime Minister Netanyahu in a ceremony in December 2012 at the Track 17 memorial in Grunewald, from which 55,000 Berlin Jews were deported;
  • The joint visit of Presidents Gauck and Peres to Yad Vashem in May 2012.

Looking forward, national Points of Contact in the two foreign ministries are planning multiple events for the fiftieth anniversary of diplomatic relations in 2015, involving all ministries and all walks of society. There will be a range of symbolic events in the future, honoring the past, celebrating the present, and anticipating the future.

Interests: Disagreement and Agreement

Raison d’état (Staatsräson) is at once a statement of a psychological “national ethos” grounded in history, but also of a pragmatic national interest. Interests propel Germany and Israel to conflict with one another on occasion, but also to cooperate regularly on security fundamental to Israel’s well-being; they also move Germany and Israel to joint, non-security projects within the bilateral relationship and beyond.

Previewing the bilateral cabinet consultations, Prime Minister Netanyahu emphasized that Germany and Israel would discuss the sensitive issues of negotiations: with Iran and with the Palestinians.  Some of the tension between Germany and Israel over Iran eased when Germany limited its economic relations with Iran as a result of the imposition of EU and UN sanctions. However, there is basic disagreement over whether the P5+1, which includes Germany, should be negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program and fuel enrichment. Israel wants a complete dismantling of Iran’s program, whereas Germany is looking for significant cuts. The differences were clear in the joint press conference after the bilateral cabinet consultations at the end of February.

Germany and Israel frequently disagree over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Chancellor Merkel and her foreign ministers have regularly criticized the Israeli government’s settlement policy, viewing it as an obstacle to the peace process. Ha’aretz considered Germany and Israel in an “unprecedented diplomatic crisis” in October 2011 after the Israeli government’s approval for building housing in Gilo (south of Jerusalem on the West Bank), beyond the Green Line. A senior German official conveyed to the Israelis that Merkel was “furious” after she had invested her personal capital in trying to derail a Security Council vote to approve Palestinian membership at the UN; and in moving the peace process forward with President Mahmoud Abbas and the Quartet.

Germany’s subsequent abstention in the November 2012 vote to grant the Palestinian Authority non-member observer status at the UN was a source of disappointment to Netanyahu and Israeli leaders. But Deidre Berger, head of the AJC office in Berlin, did not see the German response as game-changing: “I wouldn’t take it as a sign that Germany has changed course on Israel.”

Indeed, criticism of Israeli policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a feature of German-Israeli relations since the early 1970s with the crafting of the then European Community’s secret “working paper” (French interpretation of UN Security Council Resolution 242: withdrawal from all territory occupied in the 1967 War) leaked by the German press; Germany’s neutral stance in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and in the OAPEC oil boycott; and Germany’s abstention in the 1974 General Assembly Resolution on the inalienable rights of the Palestinians. This official policy of even-handedness (Ausgewogenheit), including the call first for a Palestinian homeland and then for a state, has been pursued by all German governments ever since and has not interfered with the overall conduct of positive relations with Israel. Merkel has formulated the German-Israeli compact as an “agreement to disagree.”

At the same time that Germany is critical of Israel, it has also undertaken concrete policies to enhance Israel’s security. Germany has provided Israel with six submarines, obviating Germany’s strict norms on not exporting arms to areas of tension and with the knowledge that the submarines can be rendered capable of a nuclear second strike. Germany concluded successful mediation, at Israel’s request, with Hezbollah and Hamas over the return of Israeli prisoners. Germany participated, again at Israel’s request, in UNIFIL along the Lebanese coast to interdict weapons. Germany has supported Israel’s right to defend itself against rockets from Gaza. More generally, there is increasing allusions from both sides to a “strategic partnership” between the two countries. The joint declaration from the bilateral cabinet consultations referred to “a mutually beneficial and trustful [defense] relationship, which is based on true partnership and operational experience.” Netanyahu has publicly expressed gratitude for German support regarding the dolphin submarines, Israeli retaliation against attacks from Gaza, and the release of Gilad Shalit.

Beyond the close German-Israeli ties in the military and intelligence fields, much of the quotidian relationship involves pursuing joint interests through cooperation in a host of other policy areas: economics, science, transportation, the environment, agriculture, technology and innovation, youth exchange, academic relations, foreign policy. These fields encompass both official and civil society active engagement. New arrangements in a number of these arenas were concluded in the February cabinet consultations. The bilateral consultations, introduced in 2008, on the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the Israeli state, act, then, to consolidate and expand the highly institutionalized policy exchanges and fora that define the relationship. The annual joint cabinet meetings are an arrangement Germany has with few other countries and that is unique in Israeli diplomacy.

Part of the maturity of the institutionalized relationship is the practice of joint policies and programs elsewhere in the world, notably Africa—Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya. Israel and Germany formalized these activities in the February meeting through the launch of “The Africa Initiative”: “Both Israel and Germany have embarked on a path of working towards a better world…to mitigate pressing global challenges such as the eradication of poverty and hunger, food security, climate change, sustainable development.”

Scholarly Literature on Concepts of Cooperation

How do the characterization and content of German-Israeli relations outlined above square with the ideas of scholarly literature? Most of the literature does not utilize the German-Israeli case, with a few exceptions in work on “special relationships” and “reconciliation.” Overall, the literature can be compared according to the actors, mechanisms, motivations, and nature of cooperative relations.

Works on special ties, friendship, and reconciliation all focus on the mutual relationship quality of interaction, whereas alliance literature is more concerned with the power of one actor over another. In this way, alliance literature often emphasizes hard power attributes and the frequency of structural asymmetry in alliances. Special relationship, friendship, and reconciliation frameworks accentuate the role of symmetry, through equal rights and responsibilities that come from joint bilateral institutions, despite structural differences in real power.

Alliance literature derives principally from military arrangements between countries predicated on an external security threat, although a variant of this literature encompasses other types of policy connections while still seeing the origin of ties in security questions.

Friendship and special relationship concepts are geared to the internal dynamic of the dyads, not the external behavior of the unit.  Reconciliation partners, like alliances, feature joint external behavior, but, unlike alliances, these exercises involve cooperative, not conflictual stances toward the outside.

All four concepts embrace the institutionalization of relations, but reconciliation literature is the only one that highlights the long-term maturation and sequencing process of institutions from infancy to consolidation, broad coordination, and joint external policies. Special relationships and reconciliation alone underline uniqueness or unusualness as descriptions of broad and deep policy preferences.

As to motivations for cooperative connections, alliances exist for highly pragmatic reasons, whereas friendships, special relations, and reconciliation all possess moral bases. These moral aspects remain general and philosophical in friendship formulations whereas in special relationships and reconciliation work they are manifested in concrete behavior. That moral behavior encompasses both governments and civil society actors, but only reconciliation frameworks specify the relationships between governments and civil society. It alone identifies civil society as an independent actor in highly functional areas like politics and economics.

Unlike special relations and reconciliation, but like alliances, friendship ties are not dependent on a previous relationship or the presence of enmity as the basis for evolving new ties. Political crises in relations appear in alliances, special relationships, and reconciliation, but only in the latter is there consideration of how the handling of crisis strengthens and authenticates the bilateral relationship. Friendship is much more concerned with harmony.

Only special relationships and reconciliation show how history shapes current policy interactions, but only reconciliation identifies fully how history is dealt with on a routine, daily basis, both as commemoration and remembrance and, at times, as a source of contestation. Moreover, it is the only scheme that underscores the role of individual leaders in translating historical obligation and responsibility into contemporary action.


The growing role of German-Israeli intelligence and security ties speaks to the elements of alliance, but the relationship is much more than that. The two countries are friends, but the intensity of engagement; ability to manage differences in interests; and the level of commitment in the relationship go beyond friendship. The indelibility of the past shapes the German-Israeli special relationship and preferential ties.

Symbolic events, the ongoing history work of civil society, the personal engagement of leaders, the identification of pragmatic interests, and the joint commitment to address together world problems make German-Israeli relations a case of reconciliation. The ability to maintain the intensity and integrity of the German-Israeli relationship in the future will depend on the commitment of new generations. Like their forerunners, they will need to mix moral imperative with practical interests. The German-Israeli fifth cabinet consultations in late February recognized this necessity and promoted it through new initiatives in youth exchange, language acquisition, and education.

This essay is adapted from a lecture given by the author at the international conference “International Affairs and the Politics of Memory: German-Jewish-Israeli Relations after the Holocaust,” University of Haifa, Israel, January 12-14, 2014.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.