What can Germany do?

A man and a woman with the English words "BRING BACK" painted on their bare backs sit during a demonstration calling for the release of hostages held by Hamas since 7 October
The planned release of 50 hostages is a start, but what about those who remain in captivity? (image: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Weeks of tough negotiations have led to an initial hostage deal between Hamas and Israel with Qatar playing a leading role in the mediation process. Bearing in mind Germany’s historic debt towards the Jews, what part could – or should – Germany play?

By Stefan Buchen

"We are doing everything in our power to ensure that all hostages are released," said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on 12 October in his government statement on the Hamas attack on Israeli territory, in the course of which the terrorists murdered more than a thousand Israelis.

Very few hostages have been released to date. They include Judith Raanan and her daughter Natalie, who have dual Israeli and U.S. citizenship. The U.S. government under President Joe Biden did not negotiate directly with Hamas for their release, however, relying instead on the Emirate of Qatar to mediate.

Qatari diplomacy key

Since then, at least, it has been clear that Saudi Arabia's small neighbouring state on the Persian Gulf has a key role to play in the hostage crisis. Qatar has good relations with Hamas. The political leader of the Palestinian terrorist organisation, Ismail Haniyeh, and his followers reside in the wealthy Gulf emirate. 

There are pictures from the height of the COVID-19 pandemic showing the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, receiving Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in his palace. Qatar also maintains good relations with Hamas's main weapons supplier, the Islamic Republic of Iran, with which the emirate shares the world's largest gas field beneath the Persian Gulf.

"Qatar is an important diplomatic channel to Hamas in the current situation, a channel that Germany should take advantage of to free the hostages," says Professor Eckart Woertz, director of the Giga Institute for Middle East Studies in Hamburg.

Qatar has good relations with Hamas and Iran, but also with the United States, which has established its largest Middle East military base in the emirate, and with Germany, where the emirate holds stakes in large companies via its sovereign wealth fund. Qatar owns a 7.6 percent share in Deutsche Bank, for example, 12.3 percent of the Hamburg shipping company Hapag Lloyd and a 17 percent stake in Volkswagen.

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Financial ties between the West and Qatar

The West has become accustomed to benefitting from investors such as Qatar's sovereign wealth fund, explains Middle East expert Woertz. "If a Western bank somewhere gets into difficulties, such sovereign wealth funds are welcome investors because they can make large strategic investments quickly and with a minimum of bureaucracy."

Furthermore, after Russia's attack on Ukraine, Qatar's role as a gas supplier has assumed greater importance. The German government signed an agreement with the Emir to buy 2.7 billion cubic metres of gas from Qatar every year starting in 2026, which corresponds to around three percent of Germany's requirements. The raw material is to be shipped to Europe in the form of liquefied petroleum gas.

It is a strange phenomenon. A rich microstate buys its way into every corner of the world, including Germany, gives the United States of America a military base, while simultaneously nurturing a terrorist organisation like Hamas. The world has played along with this game up to now. With the approval of the USA, Europe and various Israeli governments under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Qatar has been transferring money to Hamas in the Gaza Strip for years, thus financing the de facto rule of the nationalist Islamist Palestinian group.

Should Germany issue a threat?

The massacre and hostage-taking on 7 October represented a rupture in relations. Should a state like Germany now politely request that the Emir maybe do something for the hostages? Yaakov Peri, former head of the Israeli internal intelligence service Shin Bet, answers with an emphatic negative: "Germany needs to take advantage of the fact that it has economic and political relations with Qatar. In my opinion, Germany can afford to threaten to cut off relations," said Peri in an interview with Panorama.

The German government could, for example, threaten not to buy gas from Qatar should no progress be made on releasing the hostages. "In the Middle East, people understand the language of power. Being nice, being friendly, is not the right tactic here. That is no way to get ahead with Hamas. You need to speak to the Qataris accordingly. And the Qataris will already know how to talk to Hamas," explains Peri. It is not about friendships now but about results.

There is no evidence thus far that the German government has shown any backbone in its dealings with Qatar. Chancellor Scholz received Emir Tamim bin Hamad at the Chancellery on 12 October. He is not thought to have threatened any consequences should Qatar fail to ensure the release of the hostages. 

German Trade and Environment Minister Robert Habeck gives a statement at Berlin Brandenburg airfield before departing for Doha, Qatar
A potential bargaining chip? Should the Germans, who signed an agreement with Qatar to buy 2.7 billion cubic metres of gas from the microstate every year starting in 2026, now threaten to go elsewhere for their energy? (image: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance)

The Chancellery does not entertain any enquiries on this matter. All they would say in response to a request by Panorama is that during the Emir's visit to Berlin, Scholz discussed the hostage issue with him. But Scholz's spokesperson remains silent with regard to the tenor of the discussion. Details would not be divulged. 

"The German government is doing everything in its power to ensure that all hostages are released – in close coordination with Israel and partners in the region and, of course, with the necessary confidentiality," reads the statement from the Chancellery.

Negative consequences for German-Qatari relations?

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has met her Qatari counterpart, Mohammad bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, twice since the beginning of the crisis, most recently on 11 November during the Arab-Islamic summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Israeli hostages were the subject of their talks, according to the German Foreign Office. But when asked whether Baerbock had threatened her counterpart with negative consequences for German-Qatari relations in the event that the hostages remained in the hands of Hamas, her spokesperson did not respond.

"The Foreign Office is using all communication channels to appeal to the stakeholders in the region and is maintaining close contact with the relatives of those abducted by Hamas," wrote the ministry spokesperson in a statement. The "possibility" of the release of the hostages was a "top priority" in Baerbock's talks.

Eckart Woertz, an expert on the Gulf region, believes that Germany is in an unfavourable position to take a tougher stance towards Qatar. The microstate can afford not to take Germany so seriously, he claims, because it can readily sell its gas elsewhere, for example in Asia. The emirate has come to realise that Germany and Europe are "political lightweights" on the world stage. This is amply evident for everyone concerned, including Qatar, says Woertz, given the inconsistent position they are taking on the Middle East conflict. 

What is more, Germany is seen by Qatar as being unilaterally pro-Israeli, "a clearly partisan player", according to Woertz. This makes it difficult for it to "wield power on the international stage". Woertz points out that the German government will hesitate to interfere in any way with Qatari investments in Germany, because then "trust in Germany as a financial centre" would be lost.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in blue talks to a man in Arab dress at the Cairo Peace Summit
Economically Qatar can afford not to take Germany seriously. What's more, the emirate considers Germany unilaterally pro-Israeli, "a clearly partisan player", says Middle East expert Eckart Woertz. This makes it difficult for Germany to "wield power on the international stage"

Reasonable doubt

Is the German government prepared to make sacrifices and possibly pay an economic and political price in the name of "raisons d’etat"? This would appear doubtful. Germany tends to take a courageous stand only when it comes to soft issues. We need only remember what happened one year ago at the World Cup, when the German national team covered their mouths in a heroic gesture.

So Qatar is in the clear, even though most of the hostages are still in the hands of an organisation whose political leader resides in its capital of Doha. Just how much the emirate can get away with in this game is apparent from the gas monarchy's public relations. Al Jazeera, by far the largest and most-watched Arabic television channel, broadcasts from Doha.

Since the morning of 7 October, the station, which is controlled by the Qatari ruling family, has been broadcasting Hamas propaganda in a continuous loop. Al Jazeera portrayed the raid on southern Israel as a heroic attack. No mention was made in the reporting of the massacre of defenceless Israeli civilians. The only thing Al Jazeera laments is the "lack of humanity" when civilians in Gaza fall victim to shelling by the Israeli army.

Is Germany powerless?

Despite contacts with the ruling family of Qatar, the impression remains that Germany and the entire West, including the USA, are powerless. The world has arranged itself in such a way that the rich small state has the upper hand.

The release of the hostages is not made any easier by the fact that Israel is currently ruled by an ultra-nationalist, verging on right-wing extremist government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is trying his best to cover up the security failure of 7 October, when a gang of murderers was able to invade Israel unhindered, by waging war in the Gaza Strip as ruthlessly as possible. Brutal strikes are meant to wipe out the shame and keep him in power.

The greater the military pressure on Hamas, the greater the chances that the hostages will be released, Netanyahu has declared several times. A ceasefire would only come into question after the release of all hostages. Is that a recipe for a happy outcome, at least on the hostage front? Neither the Chancellery nor the Foreign Office was prepared to answer the question of whether the German government shares the views and assessments of the Israeli head of government.

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No ceasefire before release of all hostages

Former intelligence chief Peri warns that Netanyahu is making a risky bet. The likelihood of Hamas being forced to make concessions under pressure is just as great as the danger of hostages being hit by Israeli fire, he said in the interview. If they were to be killed, it would be a tragedy not only for their relatives, but for Israeli society as a whole, said Peri: "I don't even want to think about it."

According to research by Panorama, a German delegation is currently stationed in Israel to deal with the hostage issue. The Foreign Office would not provide any details on which personnel are involved, how many people are there and what exactly they are doing. The statement says that a special taskforce has been set up that is "in close contact and intensively coordinating with the Israeli authorities and other partners in the region and beyond". The crisis officer is evidently holding talks in the region. The secrecy surrounding the hostage crisis is understandable and justified. It increases the chances of successful negotiations and therefore of a deal. But secrecy can also serve another purpose: to conceal possible inaction.

"German raison d’etat "

More than a dozen of the abductees have both Israeli and German citizenship. But does that make a difference? "Israel's security is a German raison d’etat". By constantly repeating the phrase, Scholz, Baerbock and Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck are proving to be the eager heirs of long-term chancellor Angela Merkel, the one who introduced the principle.

In the case of those abducted to Gaza, this means that Germany has assumed responsibility for the safe return of all Israeli hostages. With the Hamas-Iran-Qatar axis and the Netanyahu government, the German government is dealing with stakeholders who are playing with fire. They must be constrained if the hostages are to survive and be released. Whether and to what extent the German government is taking on this responsibility remains unclear at the moment.

Stefan Buchen

© Qantara.de 2023

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor