When AJC opened its Berlin office in 1998, many things were different.
Helmut Kohl was Germany’s chancellor. There were 15 European Union members. The Eurozone was still in the planning stage. King Hussein was Jordan’s monarch. Hosni Mubarak was Egypt’s president. Yasser Arafat was the Palestinian leader. Hafez el-Assad was Syria’s strongman. 9/11 was three years away and the American-led invasion of Iraq five years off.
One thing has not changed. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister in 1998, holds the same office today. While from 1999 to 2009 Netanyahu was out of office, he is widely expected to serve a third term as Israel’s leader after the country’s January 22 elections.
Compared to 1998, Netanyahu faces an even more complex regional picture.
First, Iran now looms as the greatest threat to Israel and Sunni-dominated Arab governments. There is the approaching prospect of Iranian nuclear capability, all the more ominous when combined with the regime’s apocalyptic theology and its oft-stated desire to annihilate Israel.
Second, Israel’s two unilateral gestures – withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005 – strengthened the hands of Hezbollah and Hamas, respectively. With Iran’s help, both terrorist groups have been building up their military strength.
Third, four successive Israeli leaders – Barak, Sharon, Olmert and Netanyahu – have endorsed a two-state deal with the Palestinians. Each tried to reach an accord, but failed. In all four cases, whether under Arafat or his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinians refused to go along.
Fourth, the Arab upheaval has created a new dynamic in the region and for Israel. Those who thought the Arab world would follow the model of post-1989 Eastern Europe failed to grasp the deeply-rooted systemic issues and the absence of democratic traditions. Instead, the Islamists have shown impressive strength in Egypt, and the future direction of the Arab world’s largest country is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, Syria, Israel’s neighbor and home to a massive arsenal of chemical weapons, has become a tragic case study in regime brutality and UN inaction.
Fifth, many Israelis have grown more skeptical of the possibility of peace. Some in Europe fail to grasp this essential point. Israelis retain their thirst for peace, but see a regional climate less conducive to achieving it. They remember what happened in Lebanon, as Hezbollah became a state-within-a-state, and in Gaza, as Hamas violently ousted the Palestinian Authority. They recall that, after the Clinton-Barak effort to reach a deal with Arafat, he unleashed a new intifada. And they see Egypt in the throes of change, raising questions about the future of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Maybe elsewhere wishful thinking can be allowed to substitute for reality, but not in Israel, where the stakes could not be higher.
But there is a wide and growing gap between a majority of Israelis and Europe. To listen to European pronouncements, Israeli settlement policy is the nub of the problem, with only occasional references, usually in muted tones, to destructive Palestinian behavior. Not only is this factually flawed, but it also raises profound questions among Israeli policymakers about the way Europe perceives reality.
If Egyptian President Morsi’s repugnant anti-Semitic comments, recorded in 2010 but only now revealed, and if Palestinian President Abbas’s recent praise for Amin el-Husseini, the wartime mufti of Jerusalem and a Nazi ally, do not trigger howls of protest, then Europe and Israel are not just living on different continents, but perhaps planets.
Germany, as always, is central to the equation. Its special link with Israel and its acute sensitivity to the dangers the Jewish state faces, coupled with its leadership role in the EU, place it in a unique position. While Berlin has made no secret of its unhappiness with Israeli settlements, it recognizes there are larger issues at work, and settlements, however controversial, are not the root cause of the conflict. Rather, it is Israel’s very right to exist as an expression of Jewish sovereignty.
That is also the position of the U.S. Much has been made of the differences between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, but such tension has arisen in every administration. No two countries, even the best of allies—as America and Israel are—have identical interests. Yet that tension has never defined the overall bilateral relationship. Indeed, cooperation today between Washington and Jerusalem has never been closer, and that will continue.
Much has changed since AJC established its Berlin office in 1998. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Middle East, not all of the change has been for the better.
David Harris is the executive director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). This article was originally published by Der Tagesspiegel.