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Why the Germans?

Since the rule of Otto Von Bismarck as prime minister of Prussia and later as Germany’s first chancellor from 1862 to 1890, Germany has traditionally tried to follow his line of mediating in international conflicts. With some very distinct exceptions in the 20th century, Germany has attempted to maintain good relations with all parties to conflicts for purposes of trade and economy rather than for pride, fame or territories.

The role of Germany has been in the headlines this week as German mediator Ernst Orlau managed to close a deal of prisoner-swapping between Israel and the Hizbullah. The deal involves Israel’s release of 435 prisoners and 59 bodies in exchange for the release of Israeli businessman Elhanan Tennenbaum as well as three soldiers, who are presumed dead by the Israeli authorities.

The fact is that German politicians are not trying to score points on the domestic scene via their mediation effort. They are instead trying to prevent media coverage of the actual exchange on Thursday by moving it to a military area. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, a German source says “there is nothing photogenic or of public-relations value in pictures of a line of prisoners marching under the escort of armed soldiers from one plane to another.”

Professor Moshe Zimmermann, Head of the History Department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says that the Germans are not trying to turn this into a show. He believes that Germany is mostly involved for the prestige it can gain on the international scene: “It certainly helps when it comes to raising the profile of Germany both inside the EU and with the Americans. Even the American administration has realized that the Germans can achieve results that the U.S. can’t because of the good relations that Germany has with several countries in the Middle East.”

According to Dr. Johannes Gerster of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (Foundation) it all began with a request in the early nineties from Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl: “The Prime Minister requested that Germany would use its influence with the Iranians to obtain information about the missing Israeli navigator Ron Arad.”

Johannes Gerster

Gerster himself was sent to Tehran to meet President Hashemi Rafsanjani together with Bernd Schmidtbauer and Burkhard Hirsch on July 4, 1994. “Rafsanjani denied any Iranian connection to the disappearance of Ron Arad, but at least the outcome of the meeting was a steady contact between Israel and Iran through Germany,” says Gerster. Hizbullah, as an organization known to be supported by Iran, has also benefited in later years from these contacts established by Gerster and his colleagues in the early nineties.

While Gerster believes Germany is involved mainly because of a request from Israel, Sat’i Nour A-Din, editor of the Lebanese newspaper A-Safir, believes the Germans are simply interested in helping Lebanon and Israel. “I am confident that they are part of the negotiations for purely humanitarian reasons,” says A-Din, whose newspaper is known to be pro-Syrian.

According to Zimmermann it is not solely for humanitarian reasons that Germany is expending so much energy on these difficult issues: “Germany is [one of] the biggest exporters in the world and they like to keep that status by confirming that their goals never are military, but purely economical.” Zimmermann also feels that this mediation gives Germany an advantage over the U.S. and others in reaching financial markets in the Middle East, as well as improving the image of Germany with the Israeli public.

“Because of its history, Germany is afraid of becoming a political giant – they’d much rather become an economic giant and leave military involvement in international conflicts to others,” concludes Zimmermann.