BERLIN (Reuters) – The prospect of German soldiers heading to the Israeli border region as part of an international force has sparked a fierce debate about what Germany’s role in the Middle East should be some 60 years after the Holocaust.
While some politicians, including Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, have left the door open to a contribution to a force, many Germans argue it is still too soon for their troops to get so close to the Jewish state.
There is also little appetite for a dangerous and long-term mission on top of military commitments in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Congo which have stirred public controversy.
In a sign of how deep the divisions are over the issue, Germans are wringing their hands long before plans are agreed for any U.N., NATO or EU force and with scant prospect of a ceasefire any time soon between Israel and Hizbollah guerrillas.
Germany has tried in the last decade to expand its global role but sending troops to the Middle East is taboo to many.
A poll in last weekend’s Der Spiegel magazine showed 53 percent of respondents opposed German involvement in a force to prevent Hizbollah attacking Israel.
“In this region Germans are welcomed as diplomats and go-betweens but not as soldiers,” Jerzy Montag, a Green Party lawmaker told Der Spiegel.
The Greens’ pacifist roots resonate broadly in Germany.
It is only seven years ago that Germany engaged in its first combat operations since the war, taking part in NATO air strikes in Yugoslavia. It has about 7,700 soldiers in global hotspots.
Since World War Two, Germany has supported Israel and built up trade, political and diplomatic ties.
But Nazi military ambitions and the Holocaust, which saw 6 million Jews killed, cast shadows over German foreign policy.
If Germany were to contribute to an multi-national force, it would probably avoid sending armed soldiers, say analysts.
“People want to avoid a German having to target an Israeli,” said Isabel Schaefer of Berlin’s Free University.
“Germany would probably send technical people or doctors but not troops with weapons,” she said.
The defense minister set tough conditions for any German participation, including a ceasefire, the release of captured Israeli soldiers and the agreement of both sides to such a force — all of which could take time.
The German army, however, played down the obstacles.
“We have the impression that the conditions are not nearly as major as the public might think,” said a spokesman for the Armed Forces Federation, noting there had for years been good cooperation between German and Israeli forces.