Interview : “No longer characterised by guilt and anger”
Israel's ambassador in Berlin, Jeremy Issacharoff, on hope for the Middle East and Jewish life in Germany.
Berliner Zeitung: Mr. Ambassador, you've just come from Dortmund, where a stumbling block was laid in front of your wife's great-grandparents’ house. How did you feel about this event?
Jeremy Issacharoff: It was a very moving event in Dortmund, the mayor was there, the Rabbi of the Jewish Community of Dortmund as well as other distinguished guests. My wife Laura stood in front of her great-grandparents house and told the story of her family, which was terrible. Her great-grandfather was murdered in Theresienstadt on April 19, 1943. Of course, a stumbling block cannot make up for such a history. But it leaves the sense of the closing of a personal circle.
After that you were remained together with members of the Jewish community.
Yes, we and the parishioners met with the mayor of Dortmund and discussed a number of issues including their concerns about the growing antisemitism.
Do Jews in Germany today have cause for concern again?
Jews all over the world have reason to worry. After 1945, antisemitism was more dormant. The terrible events of the Shoah were still so present that people avoided acting in an antisemitism way publicly. With time, the silence was lifted. There is a creeping antisemitism coming to the fore. What has changed today is that certain things are being said again and that we witness an increasing number of violent attacks. In these circumstances, Jews in Germany are worried about their security.
A few years ago there were numerous antisemitic incidents in France. Many Jews emigrated to Israel at the time. Is this danger also present in Germany?
My impression is that the Jewish community feels like part of German society. The federal government and the state governments promote Jewish life in Germany. But with the attack in Halle, something has changed. We have experienced that at the beginning there are words and finally deeds follow. Imagine if the assassin of Halle had been successful with his plan? There would have been murders of Jews, on Yom Kippur, in Germany.
Has the raison d'état been shaken? What is the reason for the changed climate?
Today there are again politicians in Germany, like some in the AfD, who talk down the crimes of the Wehrmacht or call the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin a "disgrace". There appears to be a nostalgia for the Nazi past.
Did you feel offended by Höcke's statements?
Yes. I found it very offensive. So far there was a consensus among the established parties in Germany that the victims of the Shoah were treated with respect. I find it disturbing that politicians negate the necessity of commemoration. I also recall the incident outside Feinberg's restaurant, where a man told the owner that the Jews would be sent back to the gas chambers in a few years' time. I did not think I would have heard such a thing anywhere and definitely not in Germany.
The AfD always says that they are particularly friendly to Israel...
It is a known scheme: One portrays himself as Israel’s friend in order to cover up antisemitic tendencies. With its rhetoric, the AfD has contributed to a more aggressive climate in the German society today. People invoke the slogans of the AfD and commit acts of violence. Therefore we reject any contact with the AfD.
But there is also traditionally a left-wing antisemitism, do you see that too?
Yes, the best example of this is the BDS movement. BDS means: Boycott, divest, and sanction. I am always in favour of dialogue, even with groups that ideologically represent different positions. But you cannot start a dialogue with the BDS slogan. It prevents any serious dialogue.
But not every criticism of Israel is antisemitic...
Of course one can also criticise Israel’s policies in a respectful way. But antisemites often hide behind the BDS movement. We have many groups in Israel who argue with each other. I speak with Palestinians, with Arabs. But when any group says that it basically wants to destroy Israel, there can be no dialogue. This is about burning bridges, not building them.
Can Germany take significant steps, for example in the Middle East peace process?
On the one hand, we should remember that the Bundestag rejected the BDS movement, it classified Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation and these were significant. In addition, Heiko Maas chose to visit Israel immediately after the new government in Israel was formed in order to discuss what Germany can do.
US President Donald Trump has recognised Jerusalem as capital of Israel. Should Germany follow this example?
The government consultations in October 2018 took place in Jerusalem with the main meeting at the King David Hotel. I was in Yad Vashem with the entire German government. These are strong signs, symbolic acts. We have a solid partnership.
In its foreign policy, the EU does not have a unified position on Israel. Should Germany lead more here?
Germany has always played an important leadership role and should continue to lead the EU, especially when it comes to Middle East policy. But there are different interests in the EU, and Germany must also take that into account. There is still much to be done. In my view, Germany is our most important ally within Europe.
Can Germany re-launch the Middle East peace process, which has basically come to a standstill?
A peace process can succeed if the two parties to the conflict talk to each other. However, the Palestinians are taking their case to the UN, to the Court of Justice in The Hague, to the Unesco in Paris and the Human Rights Council in Geneva. But they are not talking to us and don't even talk to the Americans. How can peace be achieved there?
How should German-Israeli relations develop further?
At present, the relationship is such that we help the Germans when they ask us for something and vice versa. The Germans asked us to help evacuate their citizens from the Gaza Strip because of corona. In 2018 the German government asked us to evacuate the "White Helmets" from Syria, and the German government has also helped Israel in similar cases. We talk about many issues, security, military, intelligence. Tomorrow, the German and Israeli air forces will hold a joint maneuver together for the first time in Germany.
How do you assess the agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates?
As someone involved in the first contacts with the UAE in Washington in the early 1990s, I believe that the agreement yesterday to fully normalise the relations between Israel and the UAE is highly significant historically and a breakthrough for greater regional stability in the Middle East.
You mentioned Hezbollah. How great is the danger it poses to Israel?
The danger is very great and worries me. Hezbollah has a sophisticated military structure. They have tens of thousands of missiles that can be fired at Israel. They are hidden within densely populated areas using civilians as human shields. They also use drones, cyberattacks and other advanced weapons systems. They are a threat to the stability of the Middle East in general and in particular to Lebanon itself, especially in the present tragic circumstances.
How do you assess the situation in Lebanon after the explosion and the resignation of the government?
The tragic explosion clearly had a profound and disastrous effect on Lebanon. We immediately offered humanitarian aid, which was the right thing to do. Lebanon will need time to recover and reform and this would be helped by excluding the role of Hezbollah and Iran.
What role does Iran play?
Iran's influence in the region must be curbed. It will therefore be important these days to extend the arms embargo. The decision in the Security Council is very important. Interestingly, the Arab states in the Gulf Cooperation Council have already spoken out in favour of the extension of the embargo.
The Russians will have a say in the Security Council. How do you see their role in the Middle East? In Syria, there is close cooperation between Israel and Russia.
In Syria, we have had contact with the Russians at the highest level: between the Israeli Prime Minister and Russia's President Putin, at diplomatic level and at the military level. We have explained to the Russians what our policy and interests are in order to avoid misunderstandings. And we have tried to understand what interests the Russians have. We have found a very cooperative way here in this difficult situation.
Israel has now been dealing with Chancellor Angela Merkel for many years. The era will come to an end at the next election. What does Israel expect from the new federal government?
Angela Merkel has contributed greatly to strengthening German-Israeli relations. She has been a factor of stability, and she is highly respected for this. Nobody in Israel would be unhappy if Merkel would remain chancellor. We expect that any federal government would continue its raison d'etat with Israel and that German-Israeli relations will remain a strong partnership.
What areas should the partnership cover?
The relationship between Germany and Israel is no longer mainly characterised by guilt and anger. It has become a strategic partnership on many levels. It is also about our common interests. These interests exist in the fields of technology, defense, science, research and business. In many areas we complement each other: Germans build the best cars in the world, we in Israel are leaders in high-technology. Here we are certainly at the beginning of a new era in our relationship.