Claudio Abbado

Germany must talk straight with Israel

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the international community faces an unprecedented set of challenges. The headlines and our collective awareness are dominated by famines, crises such as the Ebola epidemic and countless centres of conflict in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe. The world seems as helpless as ever and our governments are split over how to solve the problems. Millions of people worldwide are on the move, fleeing war, hunger, repression and poverty, and European countries, in particular Germany, appear to them to be the last safe refuge. The challenge facing rich western nations is a moral as well as a social one.

The 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall is a fitting moment to reflect on the state of the world today and on the responsibility borne by Europe as a whole and specifically by Germany, which has now been a reunified country for a quarter of a century.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting prospect of a new world order marked the end of a precarious equilibrium and the beginning of an apparent unipolarity dominated by the west – first and foremost the US, followed by the countries of Europe. As western democratic and capitalistic systems had prevailed, this might have produced a clear and undisputed hegemony, which could have moulded the international politics of the new era. Instead, the west was unable to make good its claim to be a global leader. Through lack of unity, unhealthy ideological triumphalism and moral failure in international crises such as the Rwandan genocide and the invasion of Iraq with the ensuing scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the US in particular gradually forfeited the moral and political authority that it had built up so successfully in Europe with the Marshall plan after the second world war.

The capitalist system, too, has its faults and the opportunity to create a new and viable one incorporating the positive aspects of socialism, capitalism and democracy was not seized. The attacks of 11 September and the subsequent war on terror, which plunged an entire region into an interminable crisis, demonstrated that the west’s position of power had changed drastically.

Today the world appears rudderless. Even small, ostensibly local, conflicts quickly grow and spread out of control. September 11 and its repercussions, the wars in the Middle East, the Ukraine conflict; all this would have been unthinkable if the west had found a new balance and lived up to its responsibilities after the cold war. Instead, there is now an international power vacuum. I am convinced that Europe in general and Germany in particular should shoulder more of the burden in these difficult times.

For a long time – and doubtless for good reasons – Germany has declined a leadership role, preferring a policy based on consensus and cooperation, especially where the European Union is concerned. In the future, too, Germany should not go it alone, yet it can still take a more active part in foreign affairs than it has up to now.

The successful reconstruction of Germany after the second world war was only possible with international help. This begets responsibility – and no country is more aware of this than the Federal Republic. She is now in a position to provide long-term and credible assistance to the many suffering and fleeing people of the world, and she should do so. Recent German history is a tale of the success of democracy and it is incumbent on this country to give other states and peoples a chance to rebuild their nations and lives.

I have lived as a Jew in Berlin for the past 23 years, something that would not have been possible if I did not believe that the Germans had thought long and hard about their past. No one else has managed to do this to the extent the Germans have, and I admire them for it. But this chapter of self-reflection should also have an impact on foreign policy.

Germany’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a diminutive one. It does not want to inflame sensibilities over its relations with Israel. However, if there is to be a solution to the conflict, Germany must play some role and exert some form of influence on Israeli policy. Germany can and should put political pressure on Israel. After all, we are talking here about the intellectual and political future of the state of Israel. The logic is simple: Germany is committed to the ongoing security of the state of Israel, but this is only possible in the long term if the future of the Palestinian people, too, is secured in its own sovereign state. If this does not happen, the wars and history of that region will be constantly repeated and the unbearable stalemate will continue.

One man was under no illusion of this – the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin: “I was a soldier and I know that Israel can win wars with Syria, Lebanon and Egypt and maybe even beat them all at the same time. But Israel cannot win a war against the Palestinian people. My first duty is to protect the security of the Israeli people and I can only meet this obligation if we make peace with the Palestinians.” It was this publicly expressed opinion that sadly cost Rabin his life.

Germany’s task, as a leading country of the world, is to make precisely this fact plain to the government of Israel – that Israel’s lasting future depends on its government’s willingness to enter into a genuine peace agreement with the Palestinians. That this also goes for the Palestinians grouped around Hamas hardly needs to be stressed. Both sides have to understand that they must live together for better or worse and that hatred, terror and territorial, ethnic and religious exclusion have never produced peace, but rather have led to killing and more killing. That, too, is a lesson that Germany, more than many other countries, has learned by bitter experience. It is a lesson that can and should inform the foreign policy of the Federal Republic.

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