Israel’s West Bank Annexation: The End of the Special German-Israeli Relationship?

Eric Langenbacher

Senior Fellow; Director, Society, Culture & Politics Program

Dr. Eric Langenbacher is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Society, Culture & Politics Program at AICGS.

Dr. Langenbacher studied in Canada before completing his PhD in Georgetown University’s Government Department in 2002. His research interests include collective memory, political culture, and electoral politics in Germany and Europe. Recent publications include the edited volumes Twilight of the Merkel Era: Power and Politics in Germany after the 2017 Bundestag Election (2019), The Merkel Republic: The 2013 Bundestag Election and its Consequences (2015), Dynamics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary Europe (co-edited with Ruth Wittlinger and Bill Niven, 2013), Power and the Past: Collective Memory and International Relations (co-edited with Yossi Shain, 2010), and From the Bonn to the Berlin Republic: Germany at the Twentieth Anniversary of Unification (co-edited with Jeffrey J. Anderson, 2010). With David Conradt, he is also the author of The German Polity, 10th and 11th edition (2013, 2017).

Dr. Langenbacher remains affiliated with Georgetown University as Teaching Professor and Director of the Honors Program in the Department of Government. He has also taught at George Washington University, Washington College, The University of Navarre, and the Universidad Nacional de General San Martin in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and has given talks across the world. He was selected Faculty Member of the Year by the School of Foreign Service in 2009 and was awarded a Fulbright grant in 1999-2000 and the Hopper Memorial Fellowship at Georgetown in 2000-2001. Since 2005, he has also been Managing Editor of German Politics and Society, which is housed in Georgetown’s BMW Center for German and European Studies. Dr. Langenbacher has also planned and run dozens of short programs for groups from abroad, as well as for the U.S. Departments of State and Defense on a variety of topics pertaining to American and comparative politics, business, culture, and public policy.


Noah Porter

Research Intern

Noah Solomon Porter is a research intern at AICGS for two weeks during Summer 2020. He assists fellows with research and writing and helps organize and document events.

Noah is two years away from graduating from the European School Rhein Main in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. He is focusing his studies on the fields of Economics, International Relations, Physics and History.

Noah was born to an American family in Frankfurt where he has lived ever since. He learned intermediate Hebrew and French during his years at the I.E Lichtigfeldschule and is of native fluency in German and English.

Israel’s intended annexation of up to 30 percent of the West Bank is further straining its relationship with Germany, one of its most committed European allies, a key provider of armaments, and an important economic trading partner.  For Germany, the potential measure highlights and exacerbates the challenge of reconciling a relationship to the Jewish state based on historical memory of the Holocaust with deeply conflicting definitions of national interest.

Ever since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, Germany has shared with it a special relationship, based on historical memory of the Holocaust.  For Germany, this has meant treating Israel with great respect and caution, making sure that they show the sincerest regret of the crimes that the country committed.  In full support of Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself through numerous wars, Germany has treated Israel specially, meaning that it has not only paid billions of U.S. dollars in reparations to Holocaust victims and the state of Israel, but also that the German government has made significant policy exceptions to export weapons to Israel in support of that nation’s security.

Despite this unique relationship, Germany is also very concerned with Israel’s announced annexation of portions of the West Bank, territory that is currently considered “occupied” internationally. Germany’s official condemnation of the annexation was articulated on July 10 2020, when foreign minister Heiko Maas traveled to Israel in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. On behalf of Germany and the entire European Union Maas declared, “that an annexation would not be compatible with international law. And that is why we are still committed to a negotiated, mutually agreed two-state solution.” The fact that Germany openly criticized Israel may not be new, however, it raises the question of how the special German-Israeli relationship is bound to change due to Germany’s intervention, or even if Israel decides to ignore Germany’s call.

The Power of History

The theme of Germany’s special commitment to Israel continually frames all diplomatic efforts. As Maas said in a speech on July 1: “this is part of our friendship with Israel: not to shy away from difficult issues.” Since the official establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1965, there has undoubtedly been a unique relationship between them. Chancellor Angela Merkel has delivered numerous speeches highlighting the importance of Germany’s historically-based responsibility toward the Jewish state. This includes the famous “We would never abandon Israelspeech in 2008, held in front of the Knesset in Israel, in which she said, “Germany’s historical responsibility is part of my country’s national interest. That means that the security of Israel is never negotiable for me as German chancellor.”

The complexity of the special German-Israeli relationship has been the source of analyses that have increasingly focused on the difficulty of reconciling Holocaust memory with the challenges of the respective nations’ sometimes-conflicting interests and Realpolitik.  Shimon Stein specifically cited this conflict, noting that policy and relations based on historical memory have become increasingly difficult, and even untenable. As the Holocaust slowly edges into the past and tangible, immediate differences in the countries’ diplomatic priorities create increasing friction, “normalized” relations seem increasingly further off in the absence of an acceptable Israel-Palestinian solution.

Markus Kaim cites similar themes of increasingly difficult-to-reconcile historically-based intentions with more current political realities.  The special treatment of Israel since the countries established diplomatic relations is observable in many forms, especially in security measures and the supply of German armaments to  the Jewish State, but Germany’s views of Israeli-Palestinian relations and more critical views of Israel among Germany’s younger voters have even created a contradiction between (1) Israel’s preferential treatment by Germany’s political elite; and (2) more critical perceptions by Germany’s electorate.  Kaim even suggests a certain inconsequentiality in German policy preferences, believing Germany lacks sufficient relevance in more existential questions in the Middle Eastern regional equation: “Nobody will primarily consult Germany if Israel’s security is immediately threatened by an aggressor—not the Israeli government, which has military capabilities so that the country’s territorial integrity or political sovereignty is not seriously jeopardized, let alone a possible aggressor.”  Indeed, opinion  polls have indicated rather critical German views of the state of Israel. According to a 2019 survey by the World Jewish Congress, 47 percent of Germans surveyed had an unfavorable view of Israel, while only 29 percent see it favorably.  Additionally, Germany’s sense of historical responsibility does not seem to be reflected among its populace. Just 39 percent of those surveyed agreed that Germany has a special responsibility to look out for Israel’s welfare due to the Holocaust, while 44 percent disagreed.

Even more critical voices have emerged in German commentary in recent years around the difficulty of reconciling German historical memory with current Realpolitik.  On the occasion of Angela Merkel’s historical memory-themed speech at Yad Vashem in 2018, Leah Frehse titled her critical commentary in Die Zeit “Kalte Freunde” (“Cold Friends”), even suggesting the special relationship is increasingly disingenuously staged, as Germany prioritized special handling over tangible resolution of policy differences.

 German Options

Given the entrenched memory-based framework concerning the Israeli-German relationship, the potential annexation of a portion of the West Bank has created a dilemma for the German government. Despite its outspoken objection, Germany has little leverage to unilaterally influence Israeli policy—a situation exacerbated by the Trump administration’s support of annexation. Germany is thus working within another traditional foreign policy paradigm: multilateralism and the European Union.

But the predicament Germany faces also applies to the EU with 27 member-state governments differing vastly over Israeli annexation plans.  Shimon Stein and Oded Eran argue that EU policy is contradictory and it does not have sufficient collective resolve to affect the Israeli economy through sanctions. Although Germany lacks leverage over Israeli policy, they contend that the German role is an important one in the European context: “At this stage, it appears that the German effort to dissuade Israel from measures that would exacerbate the tension between Israel and the EU has not borne fruit…  … Germany’s status and position in general are important—and particularly during the next half year, as it becomes the EU on-duty president and maintains its membership in the UN Security Council.”

A more impactful effort might avoid the EU altogether. In a joint statement made on July 7, Germany along with France, Egypt, and Jordan, stated: “We also agree that such a move would have serious implications for the security and stability of the region and would be a major obstacle to efforts to achieve a full and just peace. It could also have an impact on relations with Israel.

The End of the Special Relationship?

The German-Israeli special relationship, based on Holocaust memory and strong economic ties, has seemingly prevented Germany from strongly intervening in Israel’s announced annexation of 30 percent of the West Bank.  Germany continues to express its preference for a Two-State Solution, and opposes any unilateral Israeli action.  Israel, on the other hand, is more focused on acting in what it believes to be its best interest, especially given the opportunities that the Trump administration has created. Regardless of what happens in the occupied territories, German leadership is hesitant to deviate considerably from the script that they owe an everlasting debt to the Jewish State.  For the time being, there will most likely not be any significant policy responses from Germany or the EU.

As time progresses and generations pass, however, this special relationship will face the challenge of re-calibrating relations as memory of the Holocaust fades. Nevertheless, given the depth of opposition in Germany to current Israeli policy, as well as strong rhetorical support for the Palestinians, actual annexation might hasten the decline of Holocaust memory as a factor in bilateral relations, leading to a less “special” relationship sooner than anyone predicted.

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