(...) In an interview Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, Israel's ambassador to Germany, pointed to the strong ties between civil society in Germany and Israel, a surge in the number of young Israelis who visit the trendy German capital, and a steady back-and-forth of lawmakers and ministers between Berlin and Jerusalem.
Germany's Justice Minister Heiko Maas was in Israel last month, Bundestag President Norbert Lammert is visiting this month and Germany's new Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel is considering a trip before Easter.
But Hadas-Handelsman acknowledged a growing gap between the Israel-friendly stance that has guided German governments for decades and an increasingly skeptical population, particularly among younger Germans who do not feel a sense of responsibility for the Holocaust.
A 2015 Bertelsmann Foundation study on the relationship showed that 77 percent of Germans believed it was time to "leave the past behind". Some 66 percent expressed anger that Germans were still blamed for crimes against Jews. Among respondents between the ages 18 and 29, 79 percent felt this way.
"The more time that passes, the more difficult it will be to maintain the unique relationship even if there are no political disagreements," Hadas-Handelsman told Reuters.
Ties between the countries run deep. Germany is a major sponsor of scientific research in Israel. It supplies the Israeli navy with submarines, financing a substantial portion of the costs itself.
And economic relations are strong. Bilateral trade in goods and services totaled $5.5 billion last year, small compared to the $25.6 billion between Israel and the United States, but second only to Britain among European Union countries. There are no signs that the German government is considering ratcheting back these areas of cooperation.
But a German diplomat said it was becoming ever more difficult to sell the close relationship with Israel to the German public. "Getting the balance right with Israel is increasingly difficult. If you don't criticize you get lambasted in the media. If you do criticize you are alienating a core partner," the diplomat said.
In a German election year, he said, Merkel had nothing to gain from an awkward meeting with Netanyahu.
Political tensions are not a new phenomenon. Back in 2011, Germany reportedly threatened to stop delivery of Dolphin submarines in response to Israeli settlement plans.
A year later, Gabriel, then head of the opposition Social Democrats, caused a storm by likening Israel's treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank to "apartheid." The most senior members of the German government began paring back their visits to Israel some years ago. Merkel has visited only twice since her 2008 speech to the Knesset. Her last trip to Israel was in early 2014.
But German officials and analysts say the current political divide appears to be deeper than it has been at any time in recent memory. "Israel knew with previous US governments that it could only go so far. Now with Trump, the more radical elements in Israel feel emboldened," said Mueller of the Heinrich Boell Foundation. "We are at a very delicate moment. It is important how Germany reacts to this new reality. The relationship could change very quickly."read more