Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and German Chancellor Merkel in Jerusalem, January 2011.
Baz Ratner / Courtesy Reuters

Three days before the media reported the deaths of Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaier, and Naftali Fraenkel, I was tipped off to their tragic fate. In early June 2014, the three Israeli teenagers had gone missing while hitchhiking in the West Bank; their kidnapping was one of several sparks that helped ignite the latest round of violence between Israel and Palestine. Although I had spent weeks in the region interviewing Israelis and Palestinians about prisoner exchanges, the alert came from a surprising corner: August Hanning, a former president of Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND. With the media railing against U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for failing to advance the Israeli–Palestinian peace process and a group of would-be mediators -- including China, Japan, and Russia -- waiting in the wings, I had come to Berlin to talk to Hanning about a country that is rarely considered a potential Middle East mediator: Germany.

Indeed, almost 70 years after the fact, Germany and Israel are still rarely mentioned in the same breath, except when discussing the Holocaust (or, in a contemporary twist, when regional critics compare Israeli policies to those of the Nazi state). Yet Berlin, and the BND in particular, has long been one of the most successful intermediaries in the Middle East, occupying the niche role of interlocutor in prisoner exchanges between Israel and two of its bitter adversaries: Hamas and Hezbollah. The BND’s recently retired president has spent weeks at a time in the Middle East brokering exchanges; a top German spy reportedly has carte blanche from Chancellor Angela Merkel to lubricate deals with taxpayer dollars; and, despite what some have defined as the "strategic haplessness" of Berlin’s foreign policy, mediating prisoner exchanges has allowed Berlin to slowly, if unintentionally, consolidate its position as a vital regional player.

Modern Germany, particularly under Merkel, is known for its aversion to conflict. For all its economic might, persistent skepticism about the usefulness of forceful intervention, coupled with a hint of self-satisfaction about its own success, keeps Europe’s leading power out of most violent international conflicts. Berlin’s continual absence has earned the frustration of the U.S. political elite, who grumble about its unwillingness to take on “global responsibility.” But Berlin remains coy about its national interests overseas. Ask a German policymaker about the country’s interests in any given hotspot and you’re likely to be told a marvelously inoffensive story about ensuring peace and stability in that part of the world.

Unlike countries such as Qatar that make mediation a hallmark of their foreign policies, Germany simply doesn’t need the influence or prestige that usually accrue to those who do it well. Moreover, its efforts in Israel have remained mostly under the radar -- so much so that several German policymakers with whom I spoke were genuinely surprised to learn that their country had ever played such a role. So if not for the fame and glory and if not to advance any clear foreign policy objectives, why has Germany made a habit out of getting in the middle of Israel’s prisoner exchanges? What does it get for its efforts? And how does it do so without alienating Israel’s neighbors? It was these questions that brought me to Hanning on a humid June morning this past summer.

HEAD HUNTERS 

Hanning is a difficult man to pin down, which is perhaps to be expected given his long career in state intelligence. For almost two decades, he was one of the most important figures in German espionage, first as the intelligence coordinator at the chancellery and then as president of the BND from 1998 to 2005. Hanning was also a constant presence in Israel, Lebanon, and Palestine, popping up at many prisoner exchanges involving Hezbollah, either as the mediator himself or as a member of the small supporting cast.

When we finally did set a date, I arrived 15 minutes early and found him already waiting for me, sitting in the far corner of the lobby next to an emergency exit, sporting wire-rimmed glasses and a half-smile. I’m pretty sure he noticed me searching for him in the lobby, a printout of his headshot in hand, but waited to see how long it would take me to find him. The situation in Israel and Palestine was, by that time, already quite volatile (Israel would launch Operation Protective Edge about two weeks after our meeting), but most Germans were much more eager to discuss their soccer team’s upcoming match in the World Cup quarterfinals.

The former BND chief, however, had little time for such pleasantries. In spite of his retirement, Hanning had come directly to our meeting from the BND’s massive new Berlin headquarters. I’d been expecting a polite but frothy interview; the topic of Israeli–Arab prisoner exchanges remains highly sensitive, and obscure confidentiality rules have constrained nearly every one of the Israeli and German politicians, intelligence, and military officers I have interviewed. But hints of Hanning’s insider knowledge snuck into our conversation, particularly when we discussed the Israeli teenagers (who were then still missing). He recounted that in mid-June, he had spoken with his friend Avi Dichter, the retired director of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency. Dichter was skeptical that the teens would be found alive. Hanning shared that view: “If Germany would be asked to be a mediator I think yes, we should be ready to do this. But our experience shows us that it would be very difficult to release them, and I fear that they are already dead. Nobody knows exactly. But I think it’s [sic] a great probability that they are not alive.”

When one mentions the phrase “prisoner exchange” today, the case of Gilad Shalit often comes to mind. In a deal designed by the BND, Hamas exchanged the young Israeli soldier for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners this past October. Yet long before Shalit, Israel had conducted plenty of prisoner exchanges with Hezbollah and other Lebanon-based militant organizations -- groups with which the BND had significant experience.

Germany’s first foray into the world of prisoner exchanges with Hezbollah and its affiliates came during the late 1980s, when two German businessmen were kidnapped in Beirut. With help from Iran and Syria (and, according to some claims, a multimillion dollar ransom) Germany swiftly secured both hostages’ release from a group with links to Hezbollah. Berlin achieved a similar feat in 1992, when its intelligence establishment, working with Syrian officials, freed two German aid workers from their Lebanese captors.

That success did not go unnoticed. Soon after the aid workers were released, former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin asked then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl for the BND’s assistance in finding and repatriating a missing Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officer named Ron Arad. Ever the pragmatist, Rabin recognized that the German government -- which was, and to some extent still is, repaying its moral and financial debts to Israel -- would be hard-pressed to refuse his request for help. The case of Arad had particular significance for Rabin: The weapons systems officer had been captured in 1986 and was thought to be held by Hezbollah, but Israeli intelligence was embarrassingly unable to confirm his whereabouts, his condition, or the exact identity of his captors. With each passing day, Arad’s ongoing disappearance chipped away at the government’s tacit promise to retrieve soldiers killed or captured.

Rabin’s request for help with the Arad case came at a time when many Israelis still disliked and distrusted Germans, even five decades after the Holocaust. The Israeli media felt similarly: In the mid-1990s, when a German mediator had successfully negotiated the release of two Israeli prisoners from Lebanon, an Israeli newspaper commended the effort but asked, pointedly, “Why it had to be a German” negotiator who facilitated the swap. Even today, the Israeli media is quick to cry foul whenever German politicians say anything that could potentially be construed as criticism of Israel.

FAIR TRADE 

Despite this antipathy, there is an almost 60-year history of covert Israeli–German cooperation on security projects, one that predates Germany’s role in prisoner exchanges. The relationship between the two countries’ intelligence services began shortly after Israel’s victory against Egypt in the 1956 Suez War, just as the newly-created state of Israel and the newly-independent West Germany were trying to build up their intelligence and military capabilities to deter hostile neighbors. The BND was impressed by Israel’s victory, and sought out a partnership with the Mossad. Such cooperation, it hoped, would have two primary benefits: keeping the BND from relying exclusively on the CIA for information, and bolstering West Germany’s military capabilities in the face of an escalating Soviet threat.

Although the politics were tricky and the partnership was hidden from the public for years, the BND–Mossad alliance was -- and continues to be -- extremely fruitful for both countries. Throughout the Cold War, the two agencies jointly collected and analyzed Soviet weapons (found both in East Germany and among Palestinian militant groups), and developed radar systems and airplanes to counter the Soviet threat. Later, the two nations nurtured a robust weapons trade; the Dolphin-class submarine that Germany sold Israel this past September is evidence of its durability. 

If shared threats helped forge the relationship, personal relationships consolidated it. Former intelligence coordinator Bernd Schmidbauer described former Mossad Chief Shabtai Shavit as “his mentor,” and reminisced fondly about playing volleyball with leading Mossad figures and attending their children’s weddings. Over a leisurely lunch in Hamburg, former German Defense Minister Volker Rühe remembered receiving impromptu calls from retired Israeli Defense Ministers Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Mordechai, asking for new weapon shipments or military technologies for Israel. “Of course I would do it if they asked,” he said. “I didn’t need to ask for permission from the Chancellor for this. If the Israelis asked for something and we could do it, we would. We were friends, it was simple.” 

Hezbollah and Hamas have good reason to tolerate Israel and Germany’s friendship. In a phone interview earlier this year, I asked Hamas’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad why Hamas is comfortable with a known ally of Israel mediating its prisoner exchanges. Germany, he replied, has “strong connections with Israel and…can actually pressure Israel,” making them a useful intermediary. The Germans also have a shining reputation for success: when Hamas was in search of a way forward in the Shalit negotiations, a “friend from the UN” recommended using a German mediator, Hamad said, since the country had played “such an important role in Hezbollah–Israeli negotiations.”

Berlin has also taken pains to maintain positive relationships with Israel’s Arab neighbors. Unlike other European powers, Germany doesn’t have a colonial history in the Middle East; instead, it has a long tradition of trade, amounting to almost $200 billion over the past decade, according to UN statistics. The German government has also invested heavily in cultural exchange and personal diplomacy. And the approach has largely succeeded, making Berlin one of the few actors in the region that hasn’t damaged its reputation while seeking to influence events on the ground.

But not everyone is unequivocally pleased by the presence of German mediators. Whereas Hamas and Hezbollah have, in the past, accused the Germans of favoring Israel in negotiations, it’s actually the Israelis who are now raising questions about Germany’s long-term intentions. Several IDF officers (who requested anonymity) with current or past responsibility for prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action indicated that, for all of the good Germany does in the region, Berlin’s motives to mediate might not be entirely pure. Shifting uncomfortably in his seat in a crowded café north of Tel Aviv, a former IDF official said flatly that one of Germany’s “main reasons” for mediating was to “strengthen its connections to Iran.” As Hezbollah’s sponsor, Iran is party to any deal involving the organization; and, as Schmidbauer later told me, Berlin requests Iran’s involvement in most negotiations, since German mediators prefer dealing with states to negotiating directly with nonstate groups. 

Over the years, a lot of fuss has been made about Germany’s economic relations with sanctioned countries in general and with Iran in particular. Germany is, after all, Iran’s most important European trading partner. As the head of international trade at the German Chamber of Industry recently told The Wall Street Journal, Iran is a “big potential market for us, similar only to Turkey.” 

The continued trade between Germany and Iran was a sore spot for many of the Israelis I interviewed, who would prefer their ally to abstain from relations with the Islamic Republic, and remain skeptical about its true intentions. Recent commentary in the Times of Israel and The Jerusalem Post, for example, has warned of Germany’s dangerously “close relationship with the terrorist regime in Tehran on a political, economic and cultural level,” and argued that Germany’s closeness to Iran undermines Western efforts to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb. Those who fret about the German–Iranian relationship tend to view the BND’s involvement in the Israeli–Hezbollah prisoner exchanges cynically, as a convenient way for Germany to interact with Iranian officials.

Hanning and Schmidbauer brushed off such criticisms. They had clearly heard such lines before, and not just from the Israelis: Schmidbauer recalled how, in a show of dümmlichkeit (roughly: “denseness”), U.S. officials unsuccessfully tried to hide their suspicions that the Germans had “aims other than purely humanitarian ones” in mediating the prisoner exchanges. Hanning simply dismissed these insinuations as “complete nonsense” and “typical Israeli speculation.” “Even as we have been successful in the region,” he said, “we never used it for political purposes. We could have used it for our policy toward Lebanon or others, but we never did. Maybe we should have used it more.” He laughed, looked at his watch, and changed the subject.

FINDER’S FEE 

That German politicians and intelligence officers deem their Middle East prisoner exchange efforts “purely humanitarian” is not surprising. In a way, it has a similarly unobjectionable ring to the U.S. government’s goal of promoting democracy. A 2013 OECD report put Berlin’s humanitarian aid budget behind only those of the Washington and London, and the German leadership has recently made several highly-visible humanitarian overtures, sending food and first aid supplies to northern Iraq last August and pledging to accept 26,400 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015. Any benefits from mediating prisoner exchanges, German officials will claim, were unintentional -- even the country’s reputation of doing good humanitarian work. Germany has no interests beyond peace and stability in the region. Nothing to gain, they will say.

Yet when pressed, even those who most adamantly denied second-order motives behind the mediation acknowledge that Germany does benefit from these efforts, whether or not the gains are intentional. The BND’s good reputation in the Middle East was, Hanning conceded, partly a result of its successful mediation of these prisoner exchanges. The German spy agency’s reliance on the CIA for intelligence diminished as cooperation with Mossad deepened -- a much-needed diversification for the spy agency -- and several German officials mentioned that the Israelis continue to help the BND “in other parts of the world” when needed. Privileged access to Israeli information, as well as the extensive network of contacts Germany now has with officials in Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine and, at least before the civil war, Syria, can only be an advantage at a time when many of the world’s most volatile conflicts are located in the Middle East.

Allegations that Germany is attempting to advance its economic interests in Iran are hard to substantiate, not least because German exports to Iran, if sanctions were relaxed as part of a nuclear deal, would amount to only one percent of its total annual exports. At the same time, Germany’s mediation activities certainly did not hurt its relations with Iran. Indeed, the BND’s relatively good relationship (at least historically) with Iranian intelligence was a clear source of pride among officials I interviewed. Schmidbauer called mutual trust with Iranian officials the “key to success,” and recalled that, after assuring his Iranian counterparts that having a daughter named “Sarah” did not imply that he was a Zionist, they were able to speak candidly and routinely traveled to each other’s countries. Whether this familiarity between Germany and Iran was enough to earn the Germans a coveted place in the Iran nuclear negotiations, or whether that spot had always been reserved for one of Iran’s most important trading partners, is difficult to say.

Perhaps most important, in a conflict suffering from a surplus of actors, Germany has managed to carve out its own, distinctive niche in the Middle East. Although other countries, particularly Egypt, have been known to assume this mediation role, it’s a pretty sure bet that the Germans will remain involved with Israeli prisoner exchanges for some time to come. It is, to borrow a term used by Israeli and German interviewees alike, “Germany’s special channel.” Mediation is a subtle way of demonstrating international relevance. But, within the complicated world of Israeli–Arab negotiations, it’s a clear signal that Germany is much more than a peripheral player.

MIXED MESSAGES

When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to broker a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians exploded once and for all this past April, the media had a field day analyzing, in breathtaking detail, all of his gaffes and missed opportunities. U.S. interests in the region are clear; its mediation goals, even clearer. Very little about U.S. involvement in the Middle East is subtle. Consequently, even the casual observer of the Israeli–Arab conflict can evaluate Washington’s efforts and debate the soundness of its strategy.

This, of course, is a major downside for a government that has explicit national interests and a well-articulated, activist foreign policy. It leaves the country exposed, open to cynical attacks, as others interpret the country’s actions through the lens of its stated interests. 

Germany has taken a different approach. “We are not used to defining, in a very precise manner, our national interests; to really define, concretely, what’s our interest and how we achieve this,” said Hanning, when asked about Germany’s interests in the Middle East. This coyness is nothing new, nor is it any more deliberate than it is a product of personalities and history. Although reformers have recently tried to push the German government in the direction of greater clarity and boldness (the Foreign Office’s ongoing comprehensive strategic review is one example), Germany’s leadership still sees advantages in ambiguity.

Over the past two decades, ambiguity and secrecy have allowed the BND to mediate at least six prisoner exchanges between Israel and its adversaries. They have also enabled Germany to slowly consolidate its position as a vital actor in the region. Any of the additional benefits that may have accrued to Berlin -- from enhanced cooperation with Israeli intelligence to a particularly privileged relationship with Iran -- went, for the most part, unnoticed by all except the most careful observers of German foreign policy. Without the scrutiny to which most other important Middle East mediators are subjected, German leaders have minimized potential pressure from the country’s allies and electorate. Meanwhile, Berlin has relentlessly proclaimed itself as a bridge between the EU, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, and Palestine -- a position that not even Washington, for all of its efforts, could credibly occupy. Perhaps it wasn’t deliberately strategic, but it certainly was effective. 

When Israel and Hamas resume cease-fire talks, high on the agenda for both sides will be repatriating the captured and killed, including a number of re-arrested Palestinians who had been released as part of the Shalit deal. Although Egypt will play the dominant mediator role in these talks, somewhere, somehow, the BND is likely to be involved. Purely out of humanitarian concern, of course.

  • LAUREN HARRISON is a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Oxford. From June 2013 to September 2014, she was an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation German Chancellor Fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin.
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