Who is Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s new foreign minister?

December 10, 2021 by Orit Arfa - JNS.org
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Annalena Baerbock’s career as the first female foreign minister in Germany was introduced to the Jewish community with a Jewish-inspired hiccup.

Annalena Baerbock in Düsseldorf, Germany Credit: Flickr via Wikimedia Commons

In her Chanukah greeting on Twitter, she wrote: “With the light of the Chanukah candles, the light beam of diversity, democracy and human dignity is magnified. They enrich us all.”

Whether or not the Maccabees’ battle against the Syrian-Greeks stands for diversity and democracy is a question left for historians. But Twitter doesn’t argue that Baerbock seems to have copied the tweet of her co-leader, Robert Habeck, who used the exact terminology last Chanukah.

Baerbock has already been beleaguered with plagiarism charges. She apologized for not properly attributing passages of her book, Now. How We Renew Our Country. Her credibility had already taken a hit when reporters discovered that she exaggerated on her résumé, falsely listing membership with the German Marshall Fund and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. To top it off, she was criticized for not disclosing all her income.

She stood the chance of becoming Germany’s next female chancellor until these hitches helped sink the climate-focused Green Party to third place. Baerbock maintained enough clout to snag the top ambassador portfolio under new Chancellor Olaf Scholz (Social Democratic Party) as part of the “Traffic Light” government named after the different colours of the coalition partners: Social Democrats (red), Greens and Free Democrats (yellow).

The pick of Baerbock, 40—measured against the coalition’s platform and contradictions within Green foreign policy—leaves analysts unsure over its effect on Israel policy. Will her Chanukah praise of diversity translate into the multicultural ethos that morally equates the Israeli and Palestinian sides?

“The Greens are basically all over the map,” said Berlin-based Matthew Karnitschnig, Politico’s chief Europe correspondent. “You have people who are very reasonable on Israel, who understand the situation there—a very nuanced view of what is going on—somebody like Volker Beck, a formerly fairly prominent figure, but he’s retired now. Still, the problem is, you have the people of the Greens who tend to be more sympathetic with the Palestinian cause. And they see this as they see the entire situation as both sides are right.”

Baerbock gave the pro-Israel camp hope that she would align with the Greens’ more pro-Israel faction, once led by former Parliament member Beck, who served as chairman of the German-Israeli Parliamentary Friendship Group between 2014 to 2016. At the height of Israel’s 11-day conflict with Hamas in Gaza in May, Baerbock was among the first politicians to promote Israel’s right to defend itself.

“I strongly condemn the continued rocket attacks by Hamas,” she tweeted on May 11. “These must stop immediately. The spiral of violence shows the urgency of resuming peace negotiations.”

The 177-page coalition agreement signed by coalition partners and dealing with several key concerns, however, evinces bias towards the Palestinians. It employs politicized terminology to describe the 1949 armistice line, and describes settlements as “illegal under international law.” In a 2018 interview, Baerbock questioned the sale of submarines to Israel but has since qualified those remarks.

“She came up with a very clear stand supporting Israel,” said Eldad Beck, Germany’s correspondent for the Israeli daily, Israel Hayom. “However, she’s going to be responsible for a ministry that is known for its hostility towards Israel and that has managed to change the positions of those who were even much more committed to Israel. She is also presenting herself as someone who is an expert in international law, and if her understanding of international law will be the German understanding of the invented international law, we are definitely going to have some problems.”

‘Sceptical that she has the standing she needs’

Karnitschnig is doubtful she’ll have the ultimate say on foreign-policy issues.

“The reality of German foreign policy is that the chancellor has basically taken control of all of the important functions under [former longtime Chancellor Angela] Merkel,” he said. “So if you’re talking about the transatlantic relationship or the European Union or China, all of that is run out of the chancellery and not the foreign ministry anymore. They obviously have their own operation there, but the real power is with the chancellor.”

Baerbock’s public positions on Russia and China have deviated from those of the Merkel era. Unlike Merkel’s coalition, the Greens expressed dissent over Russia’s NordStream 2 pipeline project, a cause taken up by members of the Trump administration who feared it could embolden Russian belligerence towards central and eastern European countries. She has also publicly chastised China on its human-rights abuses while Merkel chose a friendlier, non-confrontational approach.

“For me, a value-based foreign policy is always an interplay of dialogue and toughness,” she said in a recent interview.

Here, too, the question is: Will deeds match words?

Karnitschnig said, “I’m sure that she will be very critical of what’s going on in China, but in terms of policy, are they really going to do anything that would harm Germany’s most important trade relationship?”

On the Israel-hating Iran regime, the Greens have been enthusiastic supporters of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—since its inception under the last Green foreign minister, Joschka Fischer. They brush aside the mullahs’ human-rights abuses in pursuit of a deal they believe will prevent Iran’s nuclear capacities.

“They take the Iranians by their word, as absurd as that sounds,” said Karnitschnig. “Don’t forget, here again, there are the economic interests; Germany was the largest trading partner of Iran for a long time.”

Given her volatile credentials and lack of executive experience, the burden is on Baerbock to prove she’s a global force to take seriously.

“I’m sceptical that she has the standing she needs in the world,” said German pro-Israel activist Malca Goldstein-Wolf. “After her statement in the past that she does not want to supply weapons to Israel, I do not expect a turn for the better in foreign policy with a Foreign Minister Baerbock.”

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