Monday, February 28, 2011

Deciphering German foreign policy toward Israel and Iran

Benjamin Weinthal
JPost International
02/27/2011 03:43

Analysis: The so-called German-Israeli ‘special relationship’ is clouded by Berlin’s tight relations with Tehran.

BERLIN – In the span of 48 hours last week, the German Foreign Ministry supported a Lebanese sponsored UN Security Council resolution which condemned Israeli settlement construction as “illegal,” and its top diplomat, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran at a time when the US and many EU countries are seeking to isolate Iran’s leaders as pariahs.

How to make sense of what many critics say is a flurry of German anti-Israel UN activity coupled with their claims of a callous posture from the country’s Foreign Ministry toward the Iranian regime’s violent repression of its country’s pro-democracy movement?

Let’s first dissect the UN vote. The Jerusalem Post learned from Israeli diplomatic sources before the UN vote that Yoram Ben-Zeev, Israel’s Ambassador to Berlin, was under the fairly certain impression that the Germans would join the Americans and prevent another diplomatic assault on the Jewish state at the UN. While Germany is not a permanent member of the Security Council, the Federal Republic, like Lebanon, is a non-standing member of the Council. There are currently 15 Security Council members, of which 14 voted against Israel.

Israeli diplomatic officials said they wish to remained unnamed because of the high sensitivity associated with the UN vote.

When asked about the German vote on Monday, an Israeli diplomat in Berlin declined to comment on the strong assurance that Germany would fall in line with the US veto. The diplomat, however, played down Germany’s backtracking, and chalked it up to EU policy conformity against the construction of Israeli housing in the disputed territories.

According to a Ha’aretz last week, Germany’s decision to join the UN diplomatic attack on Israel prompted Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to express his displeasure and disappointment with Germany’s vote during a Monday telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. An unnamed “senior German source” leaked the content of the conversation.

According to the German source, Merkel responded to Netanyahu, saying “How dare you,” and “You are the one who disappointed us. You haven’t made a single step to advance peace.”

Netanyahu told Merkel that he plans to jump-start a new peace plan and will deliver a speech about peace talks within the next three weeks.

A spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry wrote the Post by e-mail on Tuesday that “the UN resolution essentially contains points that have already been contained in several EU and Mideast Quartet declarations, as well as statements by the German government, and which condemn settlement activities. The central issue for the peace process is resumption of substantive talks. We continue to work vigorously towards this.” He added that “progress in the Mideast peace process is possible and necessary in order to stabilize the region. Now the issue is clear parameters for the negotiations and rapid resumption of negotiations.” Traditionally, the German Foreign Ministry – and the German Chancellery – is extremely tight-lipped about German-Israeli relations. That helps to explain the diplomatic boilerplate language. Multiple Post queries to the Foreign Ministry about whether there was reneging on an agreement to not cast a vote for a one-sided resolution against Israel were not specifically answered.

German and Israeli diplomats go to great lengths to affirm excellent relations between the two countries. When asked about a telephone conversation on Monday between Merkel and Netanyahu, a Merkel administration spokeswoman told the Post on the telephone that she could only confirm that both heads of state discussed the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” She declined to comment on whether Merkel and Netanyahu discussed Germany’s UN vote against Israel or the two Iranian war ships that passed through the Suez Canal.

The Foreign Ministry’s decision at the UN meshes with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s more combative foreign policy tone against the Jewish state. As a 2009 WikiLeaks cable from US diplomats in Berlin revealed, Christoph Heusgen, a senior adviser to Merkel, urged the US to water down its opposition to the UN’s anti-Israel “Goldstone Report” in order to force Israel to freeze settlement construction. The behind the scenes anti-Israel activity from Heusgen, Merkel’s point man on the Middle East, seemed to have caught Israel by surprise.

The second dissection involves Westerwelle’s trip to Iran last Saturday. The last visit of a German Foreign Minister to Iran took place eight years ago. According to German media reports, the meeting with Ahmadinejad served as a diplomatic quid pro quo to secure the release of two German journalists held captive since October in Iran.

Westerwelle returned last Sunday with the reporter and photographer for the mass-circulation Bild am Sonntag. Marcus Hellwig and Jens Koch were arrested last October for interviewing the son of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman who was sentenced to death by stoning for alleged adultery.

Critics in Germany accuse Westerwelle of playing into the hands of an extremist Iranian regime.

“This is a simply a disgrace,” Dr. Kazem Moussavi told AP. Moussavi, an Iranian dissident living in Germany, said, “his meeting ignored the ruling regime’s terror, the people’s suffering,” and predicted that the Iranian government would produce a message that shows Germany rehabilitating Iran’s image.

The state-controlled Iranian Fars News Agency did precisely that. According to a Monday Fars News article, Westerwelle’s visit to Tehran “defused the plots hatched by certain western countries to isolate Iran, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Consular, Parliamentary and Expatriates Affairs Hassan Qashqavi said.”

Germany’s sizable business interests in the Islamic Republic coupled with its steadfast refusal to shut the Hamburgbased European-Iranian trade bank (EIH) are, according to observers of German- Iranian relations, compelling reasons for Westerwelle to also personally meet with Ahmadinejad.

The US Treasury Department designated the EIH a sanctioned entity last year, and said, “As one of Iran’s few remaining access points to the European financial system, EIH has facilitated a tremendous volume of transactions for Iranian banks previously [blacklisted] for proliferation.”

A bipartisan group of eleven US Senators wrote a strongly worded letter to Westerwelle in early February calling on him to shut down the bank’s operation in Germany.

The Foreign Ministry has taken no action against the EIH. Westerwelle’s pro-business party, the Free Democrats, has been an aggressive proponent of trade relations with Iran. The FDP’s core voting constituency is small and mid-size companies who conduct transactions via the EIH bank.

To make sense of German-Israeli relations, one must understand Germany’s odd fixation on settlement construction as the central obstacle to Mideast peace as well as Germany’s lucrative relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The so-called German-Israeli “special relationship” is clouded by Germany’s tight economic, cultural and political relations with Tehran.

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