BERLIN // Criticising Israel has long been virtually taboo for senior German politicians because of the Holocaust, and unwavering support for the Jewish state has been a firm part of German state doctrine for more than half a century. But Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Berlin today, his first since his election in March, follows unusually vocal attacks in Germany on Israeli policy that reflect a distinct shift in public opinion in recent years.
Ruprecht Polenz, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and chairman of parliament's foreign affairs committee, warned Israel last month that it risks "committing suicide as a democratic state" if it goes on building settlements in the Palestinian territories. Editorials in mainstream newspapers praised his comment and said Germany has a duty to warn Israel about the dangers of its settlement policy.
Meanwhile, the regional government of the state of Baden-Württemberg came under fire from Jewish groups last month for awarding the Federal Cross of Merit, one of Germany's highest honours, to Felicia-Amalia Langer, a human rights activist who has called Israel an "apartheid state". Analysts said Germany's stance on Israel is divided between official declarations of support and public scepticism that has mounted since the 2006 Lebanon war and the military offensive in Gaza this year.
"There has definitely been a change but it's been in terms of public opinion rather than government policy," said Sylke Tempel, an analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations. "It's a trend that has been going on for a long time and I hope it won't do fundamental damage to German-Israeli relations." Recent opinion polls have shown that an overwhelming majority of Germans want their country to be strictly neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and slightly more than 50 per cent do not believe Germany has a historical obligation to Israel anymore.
That was a stance firmly rejected by Mrs Merkel in an emotional speech to the Knesset in March 2008 when she said Israel's security was the bedrock of German state doctrine and would never be negotiable. "Germany and Israel are and will remain forever bound in a special way by the memory of the Shoah," she told Israeli lawmakers. "I bow my head to the victims." While the Holocaust does not commit Germany to unquestioning support of Israeli government policy, and criticism does not necessarily equate to anti-Semitism, there is a growing tendency in Germany, and to an even greater extent in other European countries, to demonise Israel for its actions, analysts said.
"In my personal opinion, legitimate criticism ends and prejudice starts when double standards are applied to Israel - when demands are put on it that wouldn't be put on other nations, and when one focuses exclusively on its failings without putting them into context," Ms Tempel said. Mrs Merkel, who is widely expected to win a second term in a general election next month, has been more forceful and consistent in her support for Israel than her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder.
But in a change of tone, she has repeatedly called for a stop to Israeli settlement building, backing US President Barack Obama's position. However, she has been at pains to balance her criticism with a tough stance towards Iran. She was among the first world leaders to criticise Tehran's clampdown on protesters after the Iranian election in June. She also repeated her call for further sanctions unless Iran made concessions on its nuclear programme. "There must be no nuclear bomb in the hands of Iran, whose president constantly calls Israel's existence into question," she said.
Statements like that have cemented Germany's standing as Israel's most trusted ally in the European Union. "Germany's fundamental and clear support for Israel has strengthened under Merkel's chancellorship and I don't think the German government is departing from that stance," said Martin Beck, senior research fellow at the GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies in Hamburg. "The demand for fulfilment of the road map and a stop to settlement construction has consistently been part of German foreign policy. That is now being articulated more forcefully, but that is in reaction to the scepticism of Israel's new government to enter into a new peace process."
Israelis see Germany's role as important even though the EU will always play second fiddle to the United States in Middle East diplomacy. "At times, Merkel is in a position to boost goodwill for Israel within the EU," Ms Tempel said. Mr Netanyahu is due to hold talks with Mrs Merkel in Berlin today. email@example.com