“An honest look at our own history”

Andreas Michaelis, German Ambassador to Israel, on a relationship which even loud criticism cannot easily spoil.

Mr. Ambassador, You have been in your post in Tel Aviv for about one year and are the youngest German ambassador to Israel to date. How would you describe your personal relationship to Israel?

In my diplomatic life, Israel was my first love. And as you know, that is something you hanker particularly after. So I’m very happy to be able to live and work in this country again after twenty years. As a German, and especially as a German ambassador, you have a special relationship to Israel. Israel is a country full of wonderful people, great contradictions and unsolved problems. This ensures a lot of work, but it also involves intense human experiences. I have found friends for life here, which is something that seldom happens to diplomats in their working lives.

Has Israel changed very much in that time?

It is tragic that the political upturn which Israelis and Palestinians dared to initiate in the early 1990s did not bring about a solution of the conflict. It was not far from it. Then came the second intifada. Since then, both sides have become totally disillusioned. What is missing is the energy to take some courageous steps. Yet while politically things have not been making any progress for years, nevertheless Israeli society has changed dramatically. Unlike up until the late 1980s, visitors are not confronted with a semi-socialist community suffering under all kinds of encrusted structures. Today Israel is a leader in research, in business start-ups and patents. It is growing fast and developing a new individualism, culturally. But there are other developments which are heading in quite a different direction. Israel cannot be equated with the cosmopolitan metropolis of Tel Aviv. The country’s fast-growing religious sector is not taking part in the modernization process. The almost 20% Arab population is lagging behind in terms of educational indicators. According to the new OECD statistics, there is widespread poverty. This country cannot be summed up in a few sentences. Yet despite all the gaps, in times of crisis and danger, the people stand together.

Federal President Joachim Gauck visited Israel in late May (photograph). How was his visit received?

It was the new president’s first state visit. 
It was his first visit to a country outside 
Europe. And it took place just a few weeks after he took office. All this underscores the special relationship we maintain with the state of Israel. Over the past years we have built up a lot of trust. During the state visit, both sides spoke not just of the partnership but of the friendship between Germany and Israel. This is quite miraculous when you look at the horror of the Shoah. And it is a miracle that would not have happened had we not taken an honest look at our history and successfully built up a stable democracy in postwar Germany. President Gauck was also able to persuasively communicate the attitude of modern Germany through his biography and his very personal words. Surely the most moving moment was when he made his entry in the Yad Vashem guestbook, which was formulated almost poetically. At the same time, he looked to the 
future and addressed future topics. He 
answered criticism of the apparent decline in solidarity with Israel among the younger generation of Germans, but was not sparing in his criticism of the, for us, unacceptable settlement policy on the West Bank and in Jerusalem.

Recently a lot of agitation was caused by Günter Grass and his poem “Was gesagt werden muss” (What Must Be Said) and by the cover story in the news magazine Der Spiegel about the controversial delivery of submarines to Israel. Are these phenomena the consequence of a more critical attitude to Israel in general, or an expression of a growing “normality in mutual dealings” between the countries?

Neither the one nor the other. What they indicate first and foremost is that the subject of Israel can create a stir in Germany. Here, these topics were not a “sensation”, or at least not a big one. Things are different back in Germany. Is that a surprise? I don’t think so. This has to do with the fact that our attitude to Israel is always linked with the issue of German identity. When we debate these issues we are often more in search of ourselves. Which is not something to be criticized. On the contrary. What I would like is that, while we are at it, we should also strive to understand Israel. I see discrepancies here, not least on the part of Günter Grass.

How do you see German-Israeli relations in 2012 in general?

In a sentence? Even loud criticism cannot really unsettle the foundations of those relations, as this year has shown.

Which areas of bilateral relations do we have to catch up in?

In all areas, not in quantitative terms, but in terms of depth. There is scarcely any area in which collaboration has not already been initiated. What we need is to pursue that collaboration even more intensively in scientific research, in development policy, in film production, in popular or classical music, in diplomacy and in the field of national security. And not expressly because of our responsibility towards the past. Germans and Israelis should meet eye to eye, as friends, colleagues and business partners. It is a matter of a sober win-win situation for both states.

Many young Israelis are attracted to Berlin. But how interested are young Germans in visiting Israel? What might give fresh impetus to youth exchange in the 21st century?

Curiosity among young Germans and Israelis about their respective countries is great, and is growing. Berlin is of course an obvious attraction for Israelis. But their interest goes beyond touristic curiosity. Many Israelis wish to be immersed in German culture, society and politics. Every year about 10,000 young people take part in exchange programmes in both directions, ranging from a study placement in the German Bundestag to a student exchange that enables many teenagers to leave Israel for the very first time and live temporarily in German families. The interest among young Germans in Israel, on the other hand, is unbroken. About 900 volunteers come here every year and work in hospitals, senior citizens’ homes and kindergartens. Countless local initiatives also provide opportunities for personal encounters. I am convinced that every friendship sealed is in turn proof of the vitality of our relations.

Finally: Which German-Israeli encounter, which event in 2012 are you or have you been especially looking forward to?

There are so many that I wouldn’t like to single one out. But let us take an event this year that at first glance would seem to have nothing to do with German-Israeli relations: the European Football Championship. Sports encounters of this type are also of political importance. During the 2006 World Cup in Germany and again in 2010 in South Africa, Israeli fans put on German football shirts and rooted for our team. This says just about everything.

Interview: Janet Schayan

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