BERLIN — There was never much doubt that the U.N. General Assembly would overwhelmingly vote to upgrade the Palestinian Authority to the status of nonmember state on Nov. 29. The big surprise of the event was that a number of key Western European countries did not join the United States and vote against the resolution. The Czech Republic was the only European country to vote against the upgrade, and shockingly, the normally staunchly pro-Israeli governments of Germany and Britain decided to abstain. Does this mean that Israel has lost Europe?
Germany's surprising decision, in the eleventh hour, to shift from opposing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's bid to abstaining on it was reportedly tied to the question of Israel's ongoing construction of settlements in the West Bank -- a recent source of contention in European capitals. Germany appears to have taken this opportunity to address the conflict on the world stage.
This decision was especially shocking to Israelis given Germany's historical relationship with the Jewish state. Chancellor Angela Merkel declared in a 2008 speech before the Knesset that she supported Israel's right to defend itself and that only the Israelis and Palestinians -- without external interference -- could negotiate a two-state solution.
"Every German chancellor before me has shouldered Germany's special historical responsibility for Israel's security," Merkel said then. "This historical responsibility is part of my country's raison d'être. For me as German chancellor, therefore, Israel's security will never be open to negotiation."
The Federal Republic has based a large chunk of its devotion to Israel's security on the notion of Wiedergutmachung, or reparations for the German crimes against European Jewry during the Holocaust.
Although Germany likes to present itself as Israel's strongest ally in Europe, the relationship has often been shaky. Take the example of Christoph Heusgen, Merkel's national security advisor and Middle East point man, who in 2009 -- a year after the chancellor's speech before the Knesset -- sought to convince U.S. envoys to weaken Washington's opposition to the United Nations' Goldstone Report, which alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza during that year's Operation Cast Lead.
According to a WikiLeaked cable from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin at the time, Heusgen "thought [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu needed 'to do more' in order [to] bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table. With Palestinians in East Jerusalem getting notices from Israeli authorities that their houses will be destroyed, it would be 'suicide' for President Abbas to move under the current circumstances."
The cable continued: "Heusgen said he could not fathom why Netanyahu did not understand this. He suggested pressuring Netanyahu by linking favorable UNSC [U.N. Security Council] treatment of the Goldstone Report to Israel committing to a complete stop in settlement activity."
In 2010, Merkel and Netanyahu had a heated telephone exchange over the settlements issue, and the relationship further frayed over Germany's decision this year to upgrade the Palestinian Authority's representation in Berlin to that of a full diplomatic mission with an ambassador.
Germany's U.N. abstention on Nov. 29 may also have been driven by domestic calculations. Specifically, Merkel may inherit the Social Democratic Party (SPD) as a coalition partner in a new government in elections in late 2013. This month, SPD officials hosted representatives of Palestine's ruling Fatah party at the SPD's Berlin headquarters and published a joint declaration affirming a "strategic partnership" between the two parties.
Meanwhile, France's relations with Israel have been uneasy for more than a decade. Famously, in 2001, France's ambassador to Britain, Daniel Bernard, called Israel "that shitty little country." More recently, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy offended the Israelis with his famous hot-mic fiasco at the 2011 G-20 meeting, in which he told U.S. President Barack Obama he couldn't stand Netanyahu (and Obama concurred).