That former German chancellor Angela Merkel hit all the right notes during her 2019 Dublin visit − in particular by backing an open post-Brexit border on the island − was largely thanks to Deike Potzel.
As German ambassador to Ireland until 2021, Potzel was a universally liked and effective diplomat who helped usher in a new era of closer Irish-German bilateral ties.
But all that seems far away as the 55-year-old faces grim daily realities as Germany’s Middle East special envoy on humanitarian matters.
Potzel has spent much of the last five weeks in a region in uproar since the October 7th attacks, when Hamas killed 1,200 Israelis and took about 240 people hostage.
On her own and alongside German foreign minister Annalena Barebock, she is engaging closely with Israeli and Palestinian officials and their Arab neighbours.
“We have had very frank and very open talks with all relevant players in this regard,” says Potzel. “The situation is very fluid and a lot of things are happening at the same time.”
In the diplomatic backrooms, far from the microphones and respective public expectations, Potzel says “everyone in the region sees the complexity of the situation, at least in the talks I have had”.
That diplomacy is even still possible is, for her, a source of hope in a grim situation. She is focused on three German priorities for Gaza: get its foreign nationals out; make it safe for humanitarian workers to get in; and put safeguards in place to open more Gaza borders to Egypt. Germany, she says, is “100 per cent committed to get more humanitarian assistance into Gaza”.
The high stakes create their own dynamics – and blinkers.
“Empathy,” she says, “is definitely something that is direly needed in this dilemma.”
Given Germany’s moral and historic ties to Israel through the Shoah, the industrialised murder of six million European Jews, chancellor Olaf Scholz has repeated that helping Israelis defend the security of their homeland is German Staatsräson or reason of state.
During her stays in Tel Aviv, Potzel has seen first-hand the lingering effects of the October 7th attacks: dazed, displaced Kibbutz communities living in hotels amid a wider Israeli population she feels is “deeply traumatised and existentially shaken”.
Among its immediate assistance to Israel, Germany is helping NGOs provide trauma therapy for children.
While many other countries have condemned Israel’s far-reaching military response in Gaza, Berlin has been more cautious: it was one of 45 countries that abstained from a UN resolution condemning civilian casualties on both sides and demanding a ceasefire, saying it was not clear enough in condemning Hamas.
At the UN and in the EU, Berlin has advocated strongly for humanitarian “pauses”, mindful of Israeli concerns that a ceasefire would allow its enemies regroup.
“Hamas is still sending rockets and still attacking Israel. In these circumstances, we are not asking Israel for a general a ceasefire,” says Potzel. “It is important that this is not forgotten just as we see the suffering of the Palestinian people who are being used as human shields by Hamas.”
Reservations about German politicians and their Middle East priorities were, for some, confirmed when European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen focused only on Israel during her post-attack visit.
Potzel agrees that there is a “very special relationship given our history” with Israel, but disputes that Berlin is “turning a blind eye on things”, in particular displaced Palestinians and their descendants – many now trapped in Gaza.
The foreign ministry says Germany is consistently a top Palestinian donor, financing projects worth €1.2 billion since the 1980s. Annual payments averaging €200 million via UN agencies in recent years have financed Palestinian schools, water treatment plants and other crucial infrastructure – including in the Gaza Strip.
Since October 7th, Berlin has announced Palestinian aid packages worth €161 million.
Rather than an imbalance, Potzel suggests that decades of German efforts to build up trust with Jerusalem has created a “deep-rooted friendship”.
This, she says, allows her and other German officials “raise with Israel the question of how the operations are conducted in Gaza and what impact the answer to this question has on the long-term security of Israel”.
The latest Middle East conflict comes at a time of shift in German public opinion. A YouGov survey this week found 39 per cent of Germans view Berlin’s position in the conflict as balanced while, for 32 per cent, it is too pro-Israel. A representative study last year found just 35 per cent of Germans still view the Shoah as creating a strong historical responsibility to Israel.
With an extended conflict likely, some see in the crumbling of old certainties in Germany the seeds of future challenges.
With anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitic attacks already on the rise, Berlin officials remain confident the gap between official position and public mood remains manageable.
“I think everyone here understands that we have a growing problem with anti-Semitism [in Germany], that more and more Jews feel insecure here,” says Potzel. “That is a task for our society and a lot of grassroots movements are getting engaged. We have a historic responsibility to push back on this.”
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