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

The German Connection

An Unlikely Middle East Mediator Works in the Shadows

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

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