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German election: Did the Israel-Palestine issue sway voters?

German parties are 'blinded' when it comes to the realities on the ground in occupied Palestine, but many voters want their representatives to stand on the side of justice
SPD leader Olaf Scholz waves in Berlin after the elections on 26 September 2021 (AFP)

The German parliamentary elections this week saw the Social Democrats (SPD) grow to become the largest party in parliament, and the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Greens gain strength. At the same time, the long-ruling Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), the Left (Die Linke) and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) lost ground.

Yet, considering the centrality of relations between Germany and Israel to German politics, alongside the intensive coverage of Israeli news by German media and statements by German politicians, it is surprising that almost no one commented on how public opinion on Israel-Palestine affected the election results.

Most gave predictable pro-Israel answers, but some politicians did acknowledge that international law must be observed regarding the right of return of Palestinian refugees

All German parties ostensibly hold the same position on Israel. “All parties represented in the future German parliament tirelessly affirm their steadfast solidarity with Israel as part of Germany’s reason of state towards the country,” Doris Ghannam of the BDS Berlin branch told Middle East Eye.

“It seems that they are all blinded when it comes to the reality on the ground, ie, the violations of international law such as military occupation, [separation] wall, apartheid - just to name a few. [No] party supports the ongoing investigations by the International Criminal Court into alleged war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territory. One could gain the impression that Palestine would not even exist for the main political caste in Germany.” 

Prior to the elections, the German Coordination Group for Palestine and Israel sent a list of questions to candidates from all parties, except the far-right AfD. Most gave predictable pro-Israel answers, but some politicians did acknowledge that international law must be observed regarding the right of return of Palestinian refugees, ending the siege on Gaza and labelling products from illegal Israeli settlements.

What was most surprising, however, was that many politicians suggested that German voters did not care much about foreign policy, and they did not think Palestine would be a decisive electoral issue.

Advocating for Palestine

While most German journalists agreed that foreign policy played a small role in the election campaign, the Rheinpfalz newspaper wondered about the decision of the parties to designate a secondary role to this topic, which affects the lives of Germans and is constantly present in the country’s political discourse.

George Rashmawi, a representative of the Palestinian Community in Germany (PGD) organisation, told Middle East Eye that during Israel’s recent assaults against Gaza and Al-Aqsa Mosque, “thousands of people, especially young people and immigrants in almost all large German cities, demonstrated for Palestinian freedom”.

Protesters hold a banner reading ‘Freedom for Palestine’ in Berlin on 19 May 2021 (AFP)
Protesters hold a banner reading ‘Freedom for Palestine’ in Berlin on 19 May 2021 (AFP)

He continued: “They demonstrated with slogans of freedom for Palestine and demanded an end to Israeli aggression against Palestinians. We, as Palestinians, were surprised by this widespread solidarity. The people speak different languages from the language of established parties on both the left and the right.”

The far-right AfD holds perhaps the most fanatically pro-Israel position in Germany, adopted in order to shield the party from accusations of harbouring antisemitism. The party lost 2.3 percent of its vote share in the elections. AfD politicians have claimed that Germany’s problem of antisemitism has been imported by refugees (mostly from Syria) - a position enthusiastically supported by those who would rather wash their hands of Germany’s Nazi past.

Within the Bundestag, such statements have been echoed by the CDU/CSU, which lost 8.9 percent of their support in the latest vote.

Die Linke, the only party that is somewhat supportive of Palestinian rights, has been severely criticised from within for the party leadership making pro-Israel statements, and for adopting the silencing methods from the British Labour Party’s witchhunt against advocates of Palestinian rights.

Left disappoints

“This time, Die Linke failed to win some of the votes that should have been naturally theirs, such as those of migrants and their supporters,” Phil Butland, the speaker for Die Linke International Working Group Berlin, told Middle East Eye.

“This was in part a reaction to some borderline racist comments made by [a leading party member] at the beginning of the campaign, and in part because of an appearance of leading candidate Dietmar Bartsch alongside the leaders of the other parties at a pro-Israel rally … We criticised both events, but still called for a vote for the party.”

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The SPD, which gained 5.2 percent in the polls, relies heavily on votes from unions. German industry - where most union members are based - profits immensely from arms sales to Israel and the pillage of Palestinian raw materials, which makes the SPD’s pro-Israel position more in line with the economic interests of its voters.

Disappointment over the rigid pro-Israel position of all German parties in the Bundestag is just one of many explanations for the results of the elections. It does not explain the surge in votes for the Greens, which benefited from growing awareness of the climate crisis following the recent deadly floods.

This common stance, however, could help to explain the decisions of thousands not to vote at all because of their feeling that their party does not take their opinions on Israel and Palestine seriously.

German politicians could capitalise on this frustration and help to bolster their popularity, as many voters expect their representatives to recognise Germany’s responsibility to stand on the side of justice, international law and human rights.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Shir Hever
Shir Hever is a board member of the Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East.