Trip to Israel: Olaf Scholz flies to Israel - how much criticism does the reason of state allow?

Olaf Scholz rarely has it easy, but this journey will be particularly difficult.

Trip to Israel: Olaf Scholz flies to Israel - how much criticism does the reason of state allow?

Olaf Scholz rarely has it easy, but this journey will be particularly difficult. The Chancellor flies to Israel and meets a prime minister who appears unimpressed by any pressure from even his closest allies. Emmanuel Macron has been criticizing the government in Jerusalem for months for its actions against Hamas. The French president said in November 2023 that too many civilians were dying in the Gaza Strip and that the army should stop killing women and children. Recently, even Joe Biden's warnings have become more severe. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doing more harm to Israel than he is helping, the US president complained, referring to the thousands of dead civilians. That is a big mistake. How will the Chancellor respond to Netanyahu now?

This weekend Olaf Scholz is flying first to Jordan and then to Israel. It is his second visit since the terror of October 7th. The first time, ten days after the attack in which Hamas killed around 1,200 Israelis and kidnapped hundreds as hostages, solidarity was at the forefront. “This is a visit to friends in difficult times,” Scholz said at the time, visibly shaken. "The security of Israel and its citizens is a matter of state." But what does that mean in concrete terms if Israel now attacks the border town of Rafah and the situation of the civilian population continues to worsen?

When Scholz meets the Prime Minister this Sunday, the situation will hardly be comparable to that at the time of his last trip. Israel exercises its right to self-defense. But the consequences are dramatic. The mood in Germany has changed; there are almost no more solidarity rallies for Israel. The fate of the hostages is often just a side note; in most media, the plight of the civilian population in the Gaza Strip dominates reporting. Germany's relations with some states in the global south, which Scholz made particular efforts to promote after taking office, are now under some strain due to the fundamentally pro-Israel position of the federal government. And Germany's international partners are also much clearer in their criticism than the Chancellor and his government.

Shortly before Scholz's trip, the Democratic majority leader in the US Senate, Chuck Schumer, himself a Jew and always an important advocate for Israel, heavily criticized Netanyahu. Highly unusual for how states interact with each other, Schumer even interfered in Israeli domestic politics and called for new elections. Netanyahu lost his way because he put his political survival above the interests of Israel. Because of his coalition with right-wing extremists, he was "too willing to tolerate the civilian victims in the Gaza Strip," said Schumer. Support for Israel worldwide has fallen to historic lows. But Israel cannot survive if it becomes a "pariah", i.e. a state rejected by its friends.

Scholz would probably never express such criticism publicly. A German chancellor must be more careful if he wants to achieve anything at all in Jerusalem. Germany continues to stand "closely and unwaveringly" at Israel's side, emphasized government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit before his boss's departure. But among friends, Scholz will probably also try to get more concessions from Israel in order to improve the situation of the Palestinian civilian population and prevent an army offensive on the border town of Rafah.

Scholz himself recently spoke in a video address at the beginning of the fasting month of Ramadan. "Yes, Israel has the right to defend itself against Hamas' terror," said the Chancellor. "It is also clear that Israel must adhere to the rules of international law and protect civilians." This demand sounded at least somewhat more critical than the Chancellor's words in the first weeks after October 7, when he had "no doubt" that Israel would abide by international law.

Scholz also now puts the fate of the abducted Israelis on a par with the suffering of the Palestinian civilian population. One must ensure that the hostages "are finally released and that more humanitarian aid finally arrives in Gaza." At another point, the Chancellor added an explicit warning against an offensive against the border town of Rafah.

The Chancellor is trying to differentiate without snubbing Israel. On the one hand, he must take into account the growing skepticism about Israeli actions among the German public. On the other hand, this also gives him the opportunity to distance himself from opposition leader Friedrich Merz. During his visit to Israel, the CDU chairman sided with Israel almost uncompromisingly, at least publicly, and also received criticism in Germany for this. “In my opinion, the Israeli government and the Israeli army are doing everything they can to protect the civilian population there,” Merz said, referring to the Gaza Strip. It is primarily the task of Hamas, which abuses civilians as human shields, to prevent further victims. If Merz is Netanyahu's best friend, second place is enough for Scholz.

Before the Chancellor travels to Jerusalem, he will visit Jordan. There he meets King Abdullah II, with whom he recently exchanged views on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. Jordan has initiated an airlift to deliver more aid to the civilian population in Gaza. Two Bundeswehr transport planes with German-French teams on board have already arrived in Jordan. The crews are now coordinating with pilots from other countries. The machines are then loaded with deliveries from the World Food Program. However, on Friday it was still considered rather unlikely that the first plane would take off for Gaza with media coverage while the Chancellor was in the region.