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German Foreign Minister Visits Middle East: Westerwelle Under Close Scrutiny in Israel

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Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, the leader of the pro-business Free Democratic party, is being closely watched during his current two-day trip to Israel, which hasn't forgotten his party's fierce criticism of Israeli policy in 2002.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on his way to Israel on Monday. Zoom
DPA

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on his way to Israel on Monday.

Guido Westerwelle is already immortalized at Israel's official Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. In May 2002, the head of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) wrote "History does not end with a new generation" in the guest book.

Seven years later, Westerwelle is Germany's foreign minister and Angela Merkel's vice chancellor. Just before his first trip to the Middle East, he emphasized Germany's special responsibility for Israel. Berlin is supporting the peace process and a "fair two-state solution" in which Israel is recognized by all countries and can live in peace side by side with a Palestinian state, he said. Westerwelle also called for an end to the Israeli settlements being built on Palestinian territory.

Around the same time as the foreign minister was making his statement, government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm also spoke out against the building of settlements. On Monday in Berlin, he said the planned construction of new homes in eastern Jerusalem are a "major stumbling block" for the Middle East peace process. Israel, he said, was obstructing plans for peace negotiations without preconditions. According to Wilhelm, Germany will present its view on the conflict in governmental talks with Israel on Nov. 30 in Berlin.

Westerwelle on Monday started his two-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories. He had a packed schedule ahead of him: Yad Vashem, meetings with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman as well with the prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority, Salam Fayyad, in Ramallah.

Westerwelle's Indecision Hasn't Been Forgotten

They are all high-ranking partners, but this is no normal visit, especially for Westerwelle. Israel has yet to forget his hesitation and indecision in 2002.

At the time, fellow party member Jürgen Möllemann had to resign from his position as the head of the FDP in North Rhine-Westphalia after fiercely criticizing Israel's then-prime minister, Ariel Sharon, for his actions against the Palestinians, as well as attacking Michel Friedman, a Jewish German talk show host, for endorsing those actions. Möllemann's comments were widely condemned as anti-Semitic.

Before the flight, Westerwelle said he didn't think the behavior of Möllemann, who died in 2003, would play a role in his trip. He believes that the incident was a bigger talking point in Germany than it was in Israel.

But Israel still seems to remember. After the German federal election on Sept. 27, there were many profiles of Westerwelle in the Israeli newspapers which referred to the Möllemann affair. However, Adar Primor, foreign-relations expert at the daily newspaper Haaretz, gave Westerwelle the benefit of the doubt. "From his very first signals to Israel, we can believe that Westerwelle wants to put this episode behind him and instead emphasize the traditionally deep friendship his party wants with Israel."

Möllemann's Shadow Receding

In 2002, Westerwelle maintained his silence on Möllemann for too long. Finally, Schimon Stein, who was then Israel's ambassador to Berlin, said that Westerwelle wanted to draw a line under German history and belonged to a new generation, in contrast to the "excellent Foreign Minister" Joschka Fischer.

It was shattering criticism. Westerwelle's 2002 meeting with Sharon turned into a disaster. The prime minister then used a joint press conference with Westerwelle to announce that what was being said against the Jewish community in Germany "very much disturbs us." Westerwelle had to endure the berating in front of journalists -- a no doubt humbling experience.

Seven years later, the German Foreign Ministry says it can't detect any misgivings about Westerwelle in Israel. Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister, was the first foreign politician to call and congratulate Westerwelle on his appointment. Lieberman is seen as a hardliner regarding the peace process.

But even as Möllemann's shadow has receded, he continues to plague Westerwelle even six years after Möllemann's suicide in a parachuting jump in 2003. During a television interview on the ARD network, Westerwelle was asked about Möllemann. Westerwelle responded by remaining silent.

Not everyone, however, was pleased about that. "In Israel, people hope that Westerwelle has learned from the Möllemann affair that a democratic German party cannot use anti-Israeli slogans in an election campaign," Igal Avidan, the Germany correspondent for Israel's second largest newspaper Maariv, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Admittedly the incident with Möllemann happened seven years ago, he says. "But one also has to critically examine the recent past, in order to learn something from it," Avidan says.

But Avidan too knows that Westerwelle will be judged on his present actions. Observers in Israel have taken careful notice of the fact that, under the new foreign minister, Germany still acknowledges its special responsibility toward Israel. Take the controversial Goldstone report on Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip, for example. At the beginning of November, the Arab states brought a resolution before the United Nations which threatened an intervention by the Security Council within three months if there was not an independent investigation into the allegations. The US, Israel and Germany voted against it.

Above All, Westerwelle Wants to Listen

That decision was advantageous for Westerwelle's visit to Israel, Avidan believes. "It allows him to ask the Israelis behind the scenes to impartially investigate the events, instead of attacking Goldstone personally."

Westerwelle can take comfort in the fact that German foreign ministers have never had an easy time of it in the Middle East. There is currently no shortage of problems, including the conflict over Iran's nuclear program, attempts by leading Palestinians to unilaterally declare an independent state, the ongoing conflict between the radical Hamas and the moderate Fatah and the recent decision by the Israeli government to allow the construction of another 900 housing units in East Jerusalem. The possibilities for a German foreign minister to achieve anything are limited, to say the least.

According to sources in the German Foreign Ministry, Westerwelle will listen to all sides and, like all his predecessors before him, make it clear that he is committed to Germany's special responsibility toward Israel.

In this context, Avidan feels that the meeting with the Palestinian prime minister was a wise move. In Avidan's opinion, it was a signal from Westerwelle that the Palestinian organization Fatah could continue to be a reliable partner.

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© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2009
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