A staunch ally of Israel, Germany changes tone as toll in Gaza mounts

Days after Hamas launched its attacks on Israel on October 7, the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, was one of the first Western leaders to arrive in Tel Aviv. Standing next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he declared that Germany has “only one place – and that is next to Israel.”

That position now looks increasingly awkward for Germany, Israel's second-largest arms supplier, and a nation whose leadership calls support for the country a “Staatsraison,” a national reason for existence, as a way to atone for the Holocaust.

Last week, as Israel's deadly offensive continued in Gaza, the chancellor again stood alongside Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, striking a different tone. “No matter how important the goal,” he asked, “can it justify such terribly high costs?”

With international outrage growing over the death toll that Gaza health authorities say exceeds 32,000, and the looming prospect of famine in the enclave, German officials have begun to question whether their country's support is gone too far.

“What has changed for Germany is that this unconditional support for Israel is unsustainable,” said Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin. “By adhering to this notion of Staatsraison, they gave the false impression that Germany actually offered Netanyahu carte blanche.”

Berlin's hardening tone is partly a response to concerns about Israel's continued insistence on the need to enter Rafah to pursue Hamas operatives it says are in the southern Gaza city. The change in position goes hand in hand with the evolution of the position of Germany's most important ally, the United States, which has shown growing disappointment with Israel's actions, including through abstention in the United Nations Security Council vote which allowed the approval of a ceasefire resolution.

The change in the German position made itself felt within a few weeks.

In January – just months after Hamas-led attacks that Israeli officials say killed around 1,200 people – Germany intervened in Israel's defense against South Africa's genocide charges at the International Court of Justice. He cited Germany's history to position himself as something of a moral authority when it came to supporting the Genocide Convention and defended Israel from growing criticism over its handling of the war.

As recently as last month, Scholz refused to answer questions at the Munich Security Conference about whether Israel had violated international humanitarian law.

But this week, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said she would send a delegation to Israel because, as a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, her country “is obliged to remind all parties of their duty to respect international humanitarian law”.

During a visit to the region, her sixth since the attack, Ms Baerbock also described the situation in Gaza as “hellish” and insisted that a major offensive must not take place on Rafah, where more than a million people have sought refuge.

“People can't just vanish into thin air,” he said.

Israel's Foreign Minister, Israel Katz, responded to Ms. Baerbock's criticism in a statement on social media, saying: “We expect our friends to continue to support Israel during these difficult times and not weaken it against the terrorist organization Hamas “.

Berlin, like Washington, has sought to position itself as a concerned friend, intent on ensuring Israel's long-term security by not allowing it to get to the point of losing even more international support. But the stakes are high for Germany too.

The country needs to maintain friendly relations around the world to pursue its interests, whether Europe is cutting deals with Egypt to curb migration or seeking support for measures to bolster Ukraine against Russia. Foreign policy experts say that by building on its strong support for Israel, Germany has also undermined its ability to credibly criticize authoritarian governments such as Russia's Vladimir V. Putin for human rights abuses.

The sense of diminishing credibility on human rights is particularly strong in the set of developing or underdeveloped countries sometimes referred to as the Global South, a point underlined during a visit to Berlin this month by the Malaysian prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim.

“We oppose colonialism, or apartheid, or ethnic cleansing, or dispossession of any country, whether in Ukraine, whether in Gaza,” Ibrahim told reporters while standing next to Scholz. “Where have we thrown our humanity? Why this hypocrisy?”

Until recently, German public opinion seemed firmly in favor of government support for Israel's military campaign. But polls conducted by public broadcasters in recent weeks show that nearly 70 percent of Germans surveyed believe Israel's military actions are not justifiable; just a few weeks earlier the percentage was around 50%.

For Mr. Scholz, the issue also became unavoidable during municipal meetings with voters.

“I find Germany's foreign policy contradictory and even hypocritical,” a woman told Scholz in the town of Brandenburg an der Havel, outside Berlin, earlier this week.

On the one hand, he said, Germany asks Israel not to invade Rafah. On the other hand, Germany remained one of Israel's largest arms suppliers. “We really need to do something to protect these people.”

Berlin's hardened stance on the war is unlikely to signal a broader turn against Israel. This week, the Interior Ministry said it will include questions about Israel in an updated citizenship test, reflecting how strongly Germany views support for Israel as part of its identity.

And beyond a change of tone, there is little Berlin can do that isn't symbolic, politicians say, unless Washington takes tougher measures. In a written response to a question from a lawmaker, Sevim Dagdelen, about the possibility of Germany halting arms deliveries, the government said it would consider them on a “case-by-case” basis.

The most important decision to be made, said Jürgen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman for the centre-right Christian Democrats in Parliament, is to restore funding to the main UN agency helping the Palestinians, UNRWA. In the wake of allegations that some agency employees participated in the Oct. 7 attack or its aftermath, Germany said it would suspend funding. (UN officials said they fired 10 of the 12 employees initially accused and ordered an investigation into the agency, while imploring nations that had suspended aid payments to reconsider.)

Now, Germany appears to be changing its position. This week, Germany said it would again fund the agency in areas where it operates outside Gaza.

Weeks earlier, German diplomats had sought the removal of UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini as a precondition for restoring funding, according to German and European Union officials familiar with the situation.

But the same officials said they had observed a marked softening of Germany's position since then, and that the Germans appeared to have abandoned their demand to replace Lazzarini. European and German officials have said Germany is likely to release funding for operations in Gaza by May.

“This could be a small action,” said Benner, the foreign policy analyst. “But I think the damage is already done in terms of German credibility. Now it's a damage control mission.”

Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed a report from Brussels.

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