One Administration, Two Views: Berlin Split on Middle East Peace Policies

By Ralf Neukirch

Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle are at odds over Middle East policy. While Merkel avoids opposing Israel on big issues, Westerwelle would like to show the Palestinians more support. The conflict threatens to jeopardize Germany's reputation as a credible partner in the region.

Photo Gallery Berlin Split on Middle East Peace Policies: Discord in Berlin Photos
DPA

Guido Westerwelle's goals sound impressive. The German foreign minister wants to encourage the Palestinians to work toward a two-state solution in negotiations, say ministry officials in Berlin, noting that this dovetails with "the efforts to support direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians." It sounds as if the German foreign minister were bringing about peace in the Middle East.

The reality will be more mundane when Westerwelle and some of his fellow cabinet members receive a group of their Palestinian counterparts for consultations in Berlin on Wednesday. At the meeting of the so-called German-Palestinian steering committee, the German government will pledge €72.5 million ($96 million) for education, police and development projects -- more of a drop in the bucket than a major diplomatic offensive.

But the reason for this isn't just the difficult situation in the Middle East. It is also partly the result of disagreement between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Westerwelle over how the German government should respond to it. Their conflict, which is hardly secret anymore, weakens German foreign policy in one of the world's most dangerous regions.

The discord is also dangerous because Berlin could possibly soon find itself confronted with a more precarious situation. If Israel attacks Iran to prevent the country from gaining nuclear weapons, the German government will have to take a position quickly. And if that happens, Germany will not be able to afford a feud between its chancellor and its foreign minister.

Delegation Dispute

The current disagreement revolves primarily around the question of how much pressure the government should exert on Israel to push for progress in the peace process. Despite all criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Merkel does not want to oppose Israel on key issues. Westerwelle, on the other hand, wants to see Germany accommodate the Palestinians more than it does today. Both politicians are trying to achieve their policy goals on their own.

Westerwelle announced plans to upgrade the status of the Palestinian delegation in Berlin without checking with the chancellery first. It was an important symbolic step that the government had discussed on numerous occasions. The status of Palestine is one of the most contentious issues between Israel and the Palestinians, which is why it would have made sense for Berlin to present a united front.

Instead, the foreign minister announced during a visit to Ramallah in February that the Palestinian general delegate in Berlin, Salah Abdel-Shafi, would be upgraded to the rank of ambassador in the future. Members of Westerwelle's staff say that both the Israelis and the chancellery were informed about the decision in advance.

But others involved disagree with this version of the story. The Israelis say that Westerwelle's announcement in Ramallah came as a complete surprise to them. Chancellery officials are also upset with Westerwelle.

The foreign ministry's version is contradicted by the fact that Westerwelle had wanted to announce the upgrade of the Palestinian delegation during a visit by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Berlin last May. He had informed the Palestinians, but not the chancellor.

But Merkel was not caught off guard. When she learned of Westerwelle's intentions shortly before the Abbas visit, he was forced to reverse his decision, leaving the Palestinians feeling short-changed.

At Odds Over UN Membership Campaign

Merkel, for her part, also makes important decisions without informing her foreign minister. When Netanyahu visited Berlin last April, she said that Germany would not support the Palestinians' campaign for full membership in the United Nations. Senior diplomats at the Foreign Ministry felt that this was the wrong decision. They believed that the chancellor should have tried to encourage concessions from Israel on the construction of settlements instead of immediately toeing the Netanyahu line. In their view, Merkel had wasted an opportunity.

For the same reason, senior Foreign Ministry officials are now critical of the decision to deliver a submarine to Israel, which the German government confirmed last week. Merkel had stalled Netanyahu at first, but she agreed to the deal after Israel said it would release frozen tax money to the Palestinian Authority.

Westerwelle's diplomats argue that Merkel approved the submarine deal without getting anything concrete in return, because Israel was already legally obligated to release the funds to the Palestinians. Chancellery officials, on the other hand, were anxious not to further offend Netanyahu.

One of the victims of the feud is Palestinian envoy Shafi. Although he can call himself an ambassador, his exact status remains unclear. For example, Shafi still doesn't know whether the Palestinian mission and his residence enjoy diplomatic immunity. And he hasn't been officially accredited as an ambassador, either. The German government, it seems, can't even agree on such minor issues at the moment.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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