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A Loyal Israel Ally, Germany Shifts Tone as the Toll in Gaza Mounts

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Days after Hamas launched its Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, was one of the first Western leaders to arrive in Tel Aviv. Standing beside the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, he declared that Germany had “only one place — and it is alongside Israel.”

That place now feels increasingly awkward for Germany, Israel’s second-largest arms supplier and a nation whose leadership calls support for the country a “Staatsräson,” a national reason for existence, as a way of atoning for the Holocaust.

Last week, with Israel’s deadly offensive continuing in Gaza, the chancellor again stood next to Mr. Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, and struck a different tone. “No matter how important the goal,” he asked, “can it justify such terribly high costs?”

With international outrage growing over a death toll that Gazan health authorities say exceeds 32,000, and the looming prospect of famine in the enclave, German officials have begun to question whether their country’s support has gone too far.

“What changed for Germany is that it’s untenable, this unconditional support for Israel,” said Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin. “In sticking to this notion of Staatsräson, they gave the false impression that Germany actually offered carte blanche to Netanyahu.”

Berlin’s hardening tone is partly a response to fears over Israel’s continued insistence that it must enter Rafah in order to pursue Hamas operatives it says are in the southern Gazan city. The change in stance also tracks with the evolving position of Germany’s most important ally, the United States, which has shown increasing displeasure with Israel’s actions, including through an abstention in a U.N. Security Council vote that allowed a cease-fire resolution to pass.

The change in the German stance has made itself felt in a matter of weeks.

In January — just months after the Hamas-led attacks that Israeli officials say killed some 1,200 people — Germany intervened in defense of Israel against South Africa’s charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice. It cited Germany’s history to position itself as a kind of moral authority when it came to backing the convention against genocide and defended Israel against growing criticisms of its handling of the war.

As recently as last month, Mr. Scholz resisted answering questions at the Munich Security Conference about whether Israel had violated international humanitarian law.

But this week, Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, said she would be sending a delegation to Israel because as a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, her country “is obliged to remind all parties of their duty to abide by international humanitarian law.”

During a visit to the region, her sixth since the attack, Ms. Baerbock also described the situation in Gaza as “hell” and insisted that a major offensive on Rafah, where more than a million people have sought shelter, must not happen.

“People cannot vanish into thin air,” she said.

Israel’s foreign minister, Israel Katz, responded to Ms. Baerbock’s criticisms in a statement on social media, saying, “We expect our friends to continue supporting Israel during these challenging times and not weaken it against the terrorist organization Hamas.”

Berlin, like Washington, has tried to position itself as a concerned friend, intent on ensuring Israel’s long-term security by not allowing it to go so far that it loses even more international backing. But the stakes are high for Germany, too.

The country needs to maintain friendly relations around the world to pursue its own interests, whether Europe is cutting deals with Egypt to curb migration or seeking support for measures to back Ukraine against Russia. Foreign-policy experts say that by hewing to its strong support of Israel, Germany has also undermined its ability to credibly criticize authoritarian governments like that of Russia’s Vladimir V. Putin for human rights violations.

The sense of diminishing credibility on human rights is particularly strong in the set of developing or underdeveloped countries sometimes referred to as the Global South, a point brought home during a visit to Berlin this month by Malaysia’s prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim.

“We oppose colonialism, or apartheid, or ethnic cleansing, or dispossession of any country, be it in Ukraine, or in Gaza,” Mr. Ibrahim told journalists as he stood beside Mr. Scholz. “Where have we thrown our humanity? Why this hypocrisy?”

Until recently, German public opinion seemed firmly behind the government’s support of Israel’s military campaign. But polls by public broadcasters in recent weeks show that nearly 70 percent of Germans surveyed felt Israel’s military actions were not justifiable; just a few weeks earlier, the number was around 50 percent.

The matter has become inescapable for Mr. Scholz even in town-hall sessions with voters.

“I find Germany’s foreign policy contradictory, and even hypocritical,” one woman told Mr. Scholz in the town of Brandenburg an der Havel, outside Berlin, earlier this week.

On the one hand, she said, Germany was calling on Israel not to invade Rafah. On the other, Germany remained one of Israel’s biggest arms suppliers. “We have to really do something to protect these people,” she said.

Berlin’s toughened stance over the war is unlikely to indicate any broader turn against Israel. This week, the Interior Ministry said it would include questions about Israel in an updated citizenship test, a reflection of how strongly Germany sees support of Israel as part of its own identity.

And beyond a change in tone, there is little Berlin is likely to do that is not symbolic, policymakers say, unless Washington takes tougher measures. In a written reply to a question from a lawmaker, Sevim Dagdelen, on whether Germany would stop arms deliveries, the government said it would consider them on a “case by case” basis.

The most important decision it could make, said Jürgen Hardt, the foreign policy spokesman for the center-right Christian Democrats in the Parliament, was to restore funding to the main U.N. agency aiding Palestinians, UNRWA. In the wake of allegations that some of the agency’s employees participated in the Oct. 7 attack or its aftermath, Germany said it would suspend the funding. (U.N. officials said they had fired 10 of the 12 employees initially accused and had ordered an investigation into the agency, while imploring nations that suspended aid payments to reconsider.)

Now, Germany appears to be changing its position. This week, Germany said it would again fund the agency in the areas where it operates outside Gaza.

Weeks earlier, German diplomats sought the removal of the head of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, as a precondition to restore funding, according to German and European Union officials familiar with the situation.

But the same officials said they had observed a marked softening of Germany’s stance since then, and that the Germans appeared to have abandoned the request that Mr. Lazzarini be replaced. E.U. and German officials said Germany was likely to release funding for Gaza operations by May.

“That could be one small action,” Mr. Benner, the foreign policy analyst, said. “But I think the damage is already done in terms of German credibility. Now, it’s a mission of damage control.”

Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed reporting from Brussels.

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