Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Honeymoon Goes Sour: The Crisis Between the Israeli Government and Willy Brandt's West Germany after the Munich Massacre

The latest publication of the Archives on the massacre of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 sheds an interesting light on Israeli-German relations in the 1970s.

The election of Willy Brandt as Chancellor of West Germany in October 1969 led to a steady improvement in relations with Israel. Brandt had been a member of the anti-Nazi resistance and as head of the Social Democrat party was a friend of many leaders of the governing Israeli Labor party. His good relations with the Soviets meant he could serve as a channel for messages about the issue of Jewish emigration; West Germany with its strong economy was very important in Israel's relations with the Common Market, and in particular, Israeli Prime Minister Golda wanted to strengthen her ties with Brandt and other Social Democratic leaders in Europe and to put Brandt at the head of this group. Golda was dubious as to the ability of the Great Powers to bring about a Middle East settlement and wanted Brandt and Israel's European friends to be more involved. At the same time, she wanted Germany to block proposals for a settlement unfavorable to Israel by other European countries.

Throughout 1972, the two kept up a correspondence on political issues and Golda invited Brandt to visit Israel. On September 4, a day before the Munich massacre, she sent Brandt a letter urging him not to assist initiatives which might harm new chances of progress on a settlement that had arisen after the expulsion of the Soviet military advisers from Egypt (see our earlier blogpost).

On this backdrop, the Munich disaster raised major questions about Israel's relations with Germany. The documents in the publication show that the Israeli government went through three stages. At the beginning, they made every effort to prevent anger over the botched German rescue attempt harming these relations, and to restrain expressions of anti-German feeling in Israel and among Jews abroad. General elections were about to take place in Germany, and the decision-makers in Israel had no interest in harming Brandt's chances of re-election. On September 6, the government decided to praise Germany's decision not to give in to the terrorists and to try to free the hostages by force. Golda even wrote personally to labor leader Yitzhak Ben-Aharon to prevent attacks on Germany at a trade union congress.

Upon the return of Mossad chief Zvi Zamir, who was in Munich during the rescue attempt as the representative of the government, the tone of the Israeli reaction began to change. His damning report led Golda to regret the friendly message she had sent Brandt earlier and the praises in the government statement. She sent Brandt another message demanding a speedy investigation. Furthermore, the differences between Zamir's written report and the report of the German inquiry led to a chain of reactions, accusations and counter-accusations by German and Israeli bodies involved in the affair. Nevertheless, a friendly and business-like tone was maintained.

A major crisis in West German-Israeli relations came at the end of October, after the German government surrendered to the demands of Palestinian terrorists who hijacked a Lufthansa plane and freed the three surviving terrorists from the Munich massacre. The Israeli ambassador to Bonn was recalled for "consultations", the Knesset and the government bitterly condemned the German actions and the public and Knesset members attacked Germany with "no holds barred", even bringing up that country's Nazi past.

Even so, the Prime Minister made it clear that nothing would be done to harm Israel's interests, which included relations with Germany. After intense diplomatic activity, these relations returned to their former course, reaching a peak in Chancellor Brandt's visit to Israel in the summer of 1973.

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