Reconciliation in Times of Crisis
On September 11, 2015, AGI convened a seminar with Harry and Helen Gray Reconciliation Fellow Hubert Leber, who presented his project on “Reconciliation in Times of Crisis: German-Israeli Affairs under Helmut Schmidt and Menachem Begin.” His project centered on a critically important time in German-Israeli relations, the late 1970s and early 1980s, a period that he proposed was the most difficult in the history of the relationship. Tensions between the West German government, led by Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, began in particularly from different stances towards the Palestinian issue, and were strongly aggravated by German considerations to export heavy arms to Saudi Arabia. At the time, Saudi Arabia – in Israel’s view – posed a serious threat to the Jewish State, and Begin was concerned that if such a deal was approved, it would endanger the security of his country. The mutual dispute reached a climax in May of 1981, when Schmidt gave an unfortunate TV interview and Begin reacted with personal attacks on the Chancellor in public. Resentment in both countries boiled over, and there were serious doubts over whether Germany would be able to preserve its post-Nazi political commitments to Israel, and whether the relationship, built on reconciliation processes, would endure.
A great deal of strain existed in the personal relationship between Chancellor Schmidt and Prime Minister Begin, even before the Saudi deal; the two leaders were simply unable to get along. After Begin – Israel’s first Likud prime minister – was elected, Schmidt endlessly postponed his pending visit to Israel. As the Federal Government began to consider plans to approve the sale of advanced Leopard 2 tanks to Saudi Arabia, a country that was openly hostile to Israel, the government in Jerusalem was cornered in an unpleasant position. It had to prevent the arms deliveries without damaging Israel’s special relationship with Germany.
Eventually, the Schmidt government decided to deny Saudi Arabia’s tank request, and even greater damage in the German-Israeli relationship could be prevented. Mr. Leber identified three crucial factors which worked in favor of safeguarding the bilateral reconciliation in those years: (1) the decisive leadership of Herbert Wehner and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the SPD Parliamentary group leader and the foreign minister, respectively, who made a significant effort – much of it behind closed doors – to assure Israel of its safety and to insert the notion of German responsibility towards Israel into Bonn’s arms export policy; (2) members of the Israeli diplomacy establishment who internally agreed, despite regular controversy, on the principle to conduct Israel’s struggle against a German-Saudi arms deal in a way that would not jeopardize the existing German-Israeli relationship as such; and (3) West Germany’s concern that an ongoing crisis with Israel might also damage its relations to the USA, given the fact that American Jewish organizations – encouraged by Israel’s diplomats – spoke out vigorously against the arms deal.
The failure of the German-Saudi tank deal – a scenario that repeated under Schmidt’s and Begin’s successors, Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir – confirmed the endurance of a “special relationship” between Germany and Israel. The bilateral relationship exists and thrives today, despite all periodic difficulties and disagreements, not least because of diplomacy, because politicians were able to rise above politics. In this sense, the rhetoric and strategy applied to the crisis in the early 1980s remain in German-Israeli relations today.
Hubert Leber, M.A., is a Harry & Helen Gray/AGI Reconciliation Fellow in August and September 2015. He is a Doctoral Candidate at the Philipps University of Marburg and the University of Haifa. While at AGI, Mr. Leber is working on his history PhD study “The Relations between West Germany and Israel in the Begin Era (1977–1983). International Politics and Historical Memory.” He studied Modern History, Medieval History, and Philosophy in Düsseldorf, Freiburg i.Br., and Jerusalem. In addition to his academic research, Mr. Leber has professional experience in publishing and journalism. He has been working as an editor at the Berlin-based think tank Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) since 2008. Prior to that, he worked as editor for the publishing houses S. Fischer (Frankfurt am Main) and Propyläen (Berlin) and as a junior editor at the literature magazine Literaturen (Berlin).
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