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12/03/2012 04:46 PM

An Affront from Berlin

Israeli-German Relations Strained after Abstention

By Ralf Neukirch

Berlin has distanced itself from Israel with the decision to abstain from voting on enhancing the Palestinians' status in the UN General Assembly. Israel had expected a clear "no" vote, but Chancellor Angela Merkel balked at Prime Minister Netanyahu's uncompromising approach to the peace process.

It was one of the most unpleasant conversations that Christoph Heusgen had ever been required to have with Jaakov Amidror. On Wednesday evening, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's foreign policy adviser told his Israeli counterpart that Germany would abstain in the following day's vote at the United Nations General Assembly on whether to grant the Palestinians the status of a "non-member observer state." Merkel's government had just decided, he said.

Amidror made it clear what he thought about the Germans' decision. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government had been expecting Berlin to show its customary support for Israel by voting "no." The Israelis viewed Heusgen's announcement as an affront.

Germany's stance on this issue shows just how deeply frustrated its government is with the Netanyahu government's policies. The UN vote was a defeat for Israel. In the end, 138 of the 193 UN member states supported the Palestinians' petition, including France and 13 other European Union member states. Germany's abstention weighed particularly heavy because it meant that Canada and the United States were the only major Western nations to vote on Israeli's side.

This Thursday, Netanyahu and several of his ministers will travel to Berlin to discuss a range of matters, including regional security issues and economic and trade ties, with their German counterparts. But relations between Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Netanyahu have rarely been as bad as they are now. Merkel is upset because she believes that Netanyahu isn't doing anything to move forward the peace process with the Palestinians. Netanyahu, in turn, thinks that Merkel doesn't sufficiently understand the complicated situation his government is in.

A Bargaining Chip

In mid-November, Merkel was still of the opinion in internal deliberations that the Palestinians should be prevented from taking unilateral steps. Indeed, this was the reason her government cited when justifying its vote against the Palestinians' bid to become a full member of UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural organization, in late October 2011.

But in the end, the Israeli government's tactical maneuvering prompted Merkel to back away from this hard line. When it became apparent that a series of EU member states would support the Palestinians' bid for observer-state status, the Israelis asked Germany to push all of its fellow EU states to abstain. Up until that point, Netanyahu had pressured Merkel's government to gather as many "no" votes as possible within the EU.

But the Israeli change of heart arrived too late. In the meantime, the governments of a majority of EU states, including France's, had decided to back the Palestinians. There was not going to be any across-the-board abstention from EU countries.

At this point, the question was how the Germans should act. From the Israeli perspective, the answer was clear: Berlin would simply vote "no." But German officials had a different take on things. Merkel was upset that the Israelis were treating Germany's vote like a bargaining chip.

The chancellor was particularly annoyed because Netanyahu had shown himself completely unwilling to make concessions. On several occasions, Merkel had urged him to at least make a gesture on the issue of settlement construction in order to send out a signal to the Palestinians. Doing so would have made it easier for Merkel to campaign for the Israeli position. But Netanyahu stubbornly ignored her wish.

Tough Talks Ahead

Daniel Barenboim, the general music director of the Berlin-based Staatsoper opera house, was in contact with the Chancellery last week. Sources close to the Merkel administration claim that the Israeli conductor advised German officials not to vote against the Palestinian petition, arguing that the wording mentions the two-state solution, which in itself entails a recognition of Israel's right to exist.

Barenboim wasn't the only prominent Israeli to think this way. Merkel attentively noted that Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, had publically voiced sympathy for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' push for statehood. Last Wednesday, Merkel decided that this time she wouldn't cater to Netanyahu's desires.

Her government must now prepare itself for some tough conversations with Netanyahu and his diplomatic entourage when they travel to Berlin this week. "It will be very animated," noted one official, adding that a cancellation hasn't been ruled out.

However, Merkel's unexpected move on the UN vote does not signal a fundamental change in course. For example, at a meeting held last Monday, the Federal Security Council, a nine-member body made up of the chancellor and several ministers that meets behind closed doors, took Israeli reservations into consideration when deciding to refrain for now from selling submarines to Egypt. Likewise, Germany continues to firmly side with Israel in the conflict over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Chancellery officials hope that the shock of Germany's abstention in the UN vote will prompt Netanyahu to think things over. "Perhaps now he will find himself more willing to give a signal to the Palestinians," says one member of Merkel's administration, though he admitted that the chances weren't all that great. "There are few signs of a change of heart."

Translated from the German by Josh Ward

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