Would-be German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle has begun a visit to Israel at the most inconvenient time. His party back home has been blasted for anti-semitic statements.
Guido Westerwelle (right) at the Holocaust Memorial's eternal flame in Jerusalem.
The head of Germany's Free Democrats (FDP), Guido Westerwelle, begins a four-day trip to the Middle East Sunday, where he'll meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Westerwelle's visit, however, comes in the midst of a dispute between his party's deputy leader, Jürgen Möllemann, and representatives of Germany's Jewish community over what many perceive as growing anti-Semitism in the FDP.
Over the past few weeks, the FDP, and especially the flamboyant Möllemann, have been heavily criticized by the Central Council of Jews in Germany and many prominent political figures for issuing anti-Semitic statements. The FDP rejects such criticism and insists the statements have only come from a few party figures and cannot be taken as a unified party position on Israel.
Westerwelle’s trip to the Middle East is an attempt to deflect attention from his party’s less than politically correct statements on Israel and focus on foreign policy, an area in which the FDP has traditionally excelled. Westerwelle has said he will primarily "listen" to what Arafat and Sharon have to say. But many wonder how the FDP leader will justify recent anti-Israel statements from inside his party when he meets with Sharon.
The problems within the FDP started when Syrian-born politician Jamal Karsli quit the Green party in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia because he didn’t support its pro-Israel policies. Karsli then asked to join the FDP, explaining that the party of free-market Free Democrats was more suited to his pro-Palestinian position.
Karsli had been an outspoken opponent of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. In an interview published in a right-wing German newspaper, Karsli compared the Israeli government’s offensive in the West Bank to the Nazis. In another interview, he criticized the media influence of the "Zionist lobby" in Germany for presenting a one-sided view of the violence in the Middle East.
When Karsli requested permission to join the FDP, many in the party rejected him for his strong anti-Israel statements; some even cautioned that Karsli was anti-Semitic. But Möllemann, who is also the head of the German-Arab Society, stood steadfastly behind Karsli and defended him and the freedom to criticize Israel in several public statements.
But during a highly publicized meeting between the FDP and Jewish leaders, Möllemann went a step beyond simply supporting Karsli and his right to criticize Israel and entered the anti-Semitic fray himself. He accused Michel Friedman, vice president of the Central Council of Jews and a prominent figure in German media, of fueling the spread of anti-Semitism in Germany with his "intolerant, hateful style".
While the controversy surrounding Karsli has died down since he withdrew his application to join the FDP, the criticism of Möllemann has picked up. The president of the Central Council of Jews, Paul Spiegel, has described Möllemann’s remarks to Friedman as the "greatest insult a German political party has made to Jews since the end of World War II."
Even Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has criticized Möllemann for his negative comments and said that "anyone who governs this country or seeks to have a say in government, has a duty to avoid racism and anti-Semitism once and for all." And the Social Democrat Party (SPD) General, Franz Müntefering, has said that it will be very difficult in the future for the SPD "to sit down at the same table with the FDP".
Westerwelle has rejected the Chancellor’s statements and those of his SPD party as empty threats and campaign tactics. "If the Chancellor wants to push the FDP to the right, if Gerhard Schröder believes the FDP or parts of it are anti-Semitic," he said, "then that’s an unbelievably shabby and arrogant electioneering stunt."
But the FDP is now facing criticism from the Christian Democrats (CDU) as well, the party's most likely coalition partners in the event of an election victory in September. Angela Merkel, Party Chairman for the CDU, says she is concerned about statements coming from the FDP and she expects Westerwelle "to put an end to the whole debate." Above all, she says the FDP leader has "to prevent the impression from forming that this is about ugly prejudice."
In an effort to make amends, Westerwelle has requested the opening of a dialogue with the German Jewish leaders. But the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany insists that there has to be an apology from Mölleman first before any talks take place.
So far, there is no sign of compromise - not exactly the tone Westerwelle hoped to set for his visit to Israel.