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Germany stands by Israel as its ‘reason of state’

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When Israel began its bombardment of Gaza more than seven months ago, Germany’s official position was clear: Hamas’ attack that sparked it made Israel’s response an indisputable case of self-defence.

In that regard, Germany did not differ from many other countries that threw its support and sympathy in Israel’s way. Germany, the EU the US and others classify Hamas as a terrorist group.

Yet international law, which governs how a country wages war against those who have attacked it, is only one aspect that informs German thinking on the issue. For Germany, where the past is always present, the roots of its policy go much deeper.

“At this moment, there is only one place for Germany: alongside Israel,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told the Bundestag, Germany’s legislature, on 12 October. “This is what we mean when we say that Israel’s security is a ‘reason of state’ for Germany,” he continued, referring to Germany’s fundamental national interest.

The German state sees a special responsibility for Israel, which the Zionist movement founded as the Jewish state just three years after Germany’s systematic murder of six million European Jews and many other groups in the Holocaust. That makes Germany’s commitment to Israel more than just a policy goal; it is a fundamental part of the country’s own sense of self.

Former Chancellor Angela Merkel popularized the term “Staatsräson” (reason of state) when she addressed the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in 2008. Her successor, Scholz, and his government have doubled down on the idea in the months since the Hamas terror attack on 7 October, which Israeli officials say resulted in nearly 1,200 people killed.

Pitfalls of a vague term

Doing so has helped and hurt Germany. Some legal analysts see “reason of state” as a policy shortcut — to get around democratic debate and anchor support for Israel in an almost constitutional way. It has led to the “merging of German historical needs of self-definition and moral self-justification with actual foreign politics,” Marietta Auer, the managing director of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory, told DW.

“I stopped believing, however, that it was a ‘smart move’ of Merkel to use the concept,” she added. “It comes at a cost for today’s politics.”

The costs are twofold. At home, “it has spawned a toxic debate” over fundamental democratic rights, said Auer. The existence of the term has become “basically a conspiracy theory” that leads people to believe there is “no free speech because of a supposed ‘reason of state’ that unfairly favours Israel and thus serves to suppress demonstrations and free speech in favour of Palestine.”

Several protests against Israel’s actions toward Palestinians and particularly its military campaign in Gaza, including by Jewish groups, have been broken up due to allegedly antisemitic chants or symbols, leading to thousands of arrests and criminal charges. Posts on social media have shown incidents of police brutality.

Last month, the “Palestine Conference” in Berlin led to entry bans for some internationally renowned participants and came to an abrupt end after police entered the venue and cut the power. Officials said the shutdown was necessary to prevent speakers from making banned antisemitic remarks. Organisers decried the moves as a chilling precedent of repression of fundamental rights.

Then there is the cost to Germany’s international reputation. As the estimated death toll from Israel’s Gaza campaign approaches 35,000, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry, Germany’s sacrosanct commitment to Israel has tied it to accusations of genocide. 

The International Court of Justice in The Hague, in a case brought against Israel by South Africa, has already found that Israel’s actions “appear to be capable of falling within the provisions of the [Genocide] Convention.”

In a separate case before the ICJ, Nicaragua accused Germany of violating its obligations to the Genocide Convention and called on the court to order Germany to halt weapons deliveries. A key element to Nicaragua’s argument was Germany’s “reason of state.”

In a preliminary judgment on 30 April, the ICJ declined to intervene and implement provisional measures to stop or limit Germany from providing weapons and other assistance to Israel for the conflict with Hamas in Gaza.

The court did not, however, grant a German request to throw the case out altogether, saying it reserved the right to review the situation and issue measures another time.

Germany’s Foreign Ministry was quick to react, welcoming the ruling and also saying that “nobody is above the law” and that this notion “guides our actions.”

Since the case came to the ICJ, Germany’s weapons deliveries have tapered and it resumed full funding of UNRWA. Both were central to Nicaragua’s case against Germany.

‘Staatsräson’ gives no carte blanche

While they don’t back down from their “reason of state” stance, German officials give a more nuanced telling of them. Before the Court, Germany’s legal team argued that any “special responsibility” to Israel falls within the bounds of international law.

“For every [arms export] license that is granted, the German Government carefully assesses whether there is a clear risk that the particular item subject to licensing would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity or grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949,” Christian Tams, a law professor at the University of Paris and co-agent for Germany, told the court. “This requirement follows from binding rules of German and European law, which exceed international requirements.”

Nor does “reason of state” preclude criticism of Israel. This has been mounting on the German side in recent weeks, including a leaked spat between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. Netanyahu appears to have rebuffed Baerbock’s efforts to press him on the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, according to Israeli media reports.

German officials also joined the chorus of political voices calling for “maximum restraint,” following Iran’s military response to Israel’s attack on its embassy in the Syrian capital, Damascus, last month. Israel’s counterstrike was widely considered a limited show of force.

Seeking a definition

The ambiguity inherent to “reason of state” makes it difficult to determine what exactly the German state is on the hook for when it comes to Israel. German officials frequently couch “security for Israel” and “protecting Jewish life” under the banner of “reason of state,” although these are not the same; not all Jews are citizens of Israel, nor are all Israelis Jewish.

Support for Israel and Zionism as a whole also appears to be decreasing among global Jewry, according to the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center. Moreover, Israel’s current government, which includes far-right and religious extremists, stands ideologically opposed to German leaders, who face their own far-right threat at home.

“In Germany, it has not really been spelt out what ‘reason of state’ means,” Carlo Masala, a professor at the Bundeswehr University in Munich, told ZDF, a German public broadcaster, shortly after the 7 October attack.

Asked for a follow-up*, Masala told DW: “Nothing has changed.”

“Reason of state” is a legal theory and concept in international relations that has developed over centuries of Western political thought as the role, rights and powers of the state have evolved. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as the “justification for a nation’s foreign policy on the basis that the nation’s own interests are primary.”

This would suggest that describing the protection of Israel as Germany’s reason of state would mean Germany has made its interests beholden to those of a foreign country.

Its own institutions appear to disagree on a definition. The Federal Agency for Civic Education, a political education resource for the public, connects “reason of state” to “earlier centuries” when monarchs and empires, not democracies, ruled.

That puts the onus on German officials to articulate what they mean when they call Israel a “reason of state.”

“The concept has proven useless, or at least we’ve seen that there’s almost nothing concrete following from it in terms of diplomatic action or military engagement,” Auer, the Max Planck legal scholar, said.

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