It is rare for top level foreign politicians and diplomats to visit the war-torn Gaza Strip, not least because it is controlled by Hamas, the political organisation viewed by Israel and the European Union as a terrorist group. This week, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier bucked the trend and visited the coastal enclave. He was careful to avoid meeting any Hamas politicians, but he did call for the rebuilding of the area, which was shattered most recently by Israel's 50-day bombardment last summer, its third major offensive against the Palestinians in six years. Billions of dollars have been pledged for reconstruction, but there has been little progress towards this goal, largely because of the tight control of Gaza's borders by both Israel and Egypt. These restrictions mean that the 1.8 million Palestinian residents live in the rubble of war, their infrastructure ravaged.
Steinmeier, who met with high level officials from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, said that the status quo was "not sustainable". On his visit to Gaza City's fishing port, he said, "We shall only be able to decisively reduce the risks of a fresh escalation if we allow economic development in the Gaza Strip in addition to humanitarian aid and reconstruction." This, he insisted, would only be possible "with open borders", meaning that tough restrictions on the movement of goods and people imposed by Israel and Egypt should be relaxed.
Later, he inserted the proviso that peace would only be possible if Palestinian rocket fire on southern Israel stopped. "I came out of all my discussions yesterday in Jerusalem and in Ramallah with the hope that all parties are mindful that here we are sitting on a powder keg and that we must ensure that the fuse does not catch light," he added at the end of his visit.
Like many other world leaders, Steinmeier urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to restart peace talks with the Palestinians, and called for a two-state solution to the conflict. Yet, also like other world leaders, there is little evidence of any real pressure coming from Steinmeier or his government to make this a reality. Most leaders and international bodies agree that the window for a two-state solution is closing rapidly; with Netanyahu re-elected with a narrow majority, heavily dependent on ultra-nationalist settler politicians, it seems increasingly unlikely. Political analysts agree that without outside pressure from its allies, the present Israeli government is highly unlikely to seek a two-state solution, but such pressure is just not forthcoming.
Germany, in particular, is squeamish about applying excessive pressure on Israel, due to profound cultural and historical guilt over the death of six million Jews in the Nazi Holocaust. When the state of Israel was first created in 1948, it refused to have diplomatic relations with Germany due to the horrors of the genocide. In 1952, Germany offered to pay reparations, and the animosity thawed gradually until diplomatic relations between the two countries were officially established in 1965, almost exactly 50 years before Steinmeier's visit. Israel and Germany now have what they describe as a "special relationship" based on shared beliefs and values. This was established despite widespread distrust of the German people amongst Israelis and the Jewish diaspora which lasted long after the Holocaust, which, with its dizzying death toll and brutality, still casts a huge cultural shadow. There is no doubt that, to a certain extent, this historical guilt affects Germany's relationship with Israel today; for example, Germany is a fierce opponent of economic boycotts against its ally (Steinmeier reiterated this during his visit this week). Critics of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement argue that it has shades of anti-Semitism and Nazi boycotts of Jewish businesses, a charge which German politicians are understandably anxious to avoid.
Today, relations between Germany and Israel are still good, but the "special relationship" is not invincible. A recent poll by the German Bertelsmann Foundation asked Israelis and Germans about their common ties. It found that only 36 per cent of Germans view Israelis favourably, while more than half of young Germans (aged 18-29) had a poor opinion of the state. Conversely, two thirds of Israelis saw Germany favourably, and a separate poll found that some 81 per cent of Israelis wanted to see a close relationship with Germany. Some have suggested that this shift of opinion amongst the German population is indicative of a divergence of the priorities of the two nations. Chastened by its historical crimes, Germany today is apprehensive of nationalism and militarism, while Israel's hawkish government exemplifies those values.
In his book "Semites and Anti-Semites", published 30 years ago, the historian Bernard Lewis wrote about German guilt and how it contributed to the positive response to the new state of Israel. He warned that "such feelings are a dwindling asset to Israel, and must inevitably die away as the memory of Nazi crimes recedes into the past." That Germany and Israel managed to establish and maintain friendly diplomatic relations in the aftermath of a tragedy as enormous as the Holocaust is a huge achievement in itself. That relationship worked because it has been grounded deliberately in a shared purpose, rather than exclusively founded on guilt and reparation. The question is, if that shared purpose looks less certain, what is left?