On a trip to the Middle East, Germany's foreign minister said Hamas should be shunned unless it renounces violence and recognizes Israel. He made the remarks after talks on Monday with the acting Israeli prime minister.
Foreign Minister Steinmeier, right, with his Israeli counterpart Zippi Livni
Frank-Walter Steinmeier's trip to the Middle East is clearly the most difficult mission since he became foreign minister in Germany's new grand coalition government. Following tradition, he starts political talks today with political leaders in Israel before he moves on to the Palestinian territories and later to Turkey
"It's a difficult trip to a difficult region," Steinmeier said.
There are several delicate issues that the foreign minister will have to maneuver, including the election results in the Palestinian territories, where the militant group Hamas won a majority. The West is still struggling with working out how to respond. Elections in Israel are approaching, although they have been overshadowed by the critical health condition of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
On Monday, after meeting with the Ehud Olmert, Israel's acting prime minister, Steinmeier said Germany backed Israel not be recognized unless it backs away from militancy and acknowledges Israel's right to exist. Hamas openly seeks Israel's destruction and has carried out scores of suicide bombings.
"I want to let Israel know that it can count on our solidarity, especially after the Palestinian election," he said.
Israel has been increasingly concerned that the international front against Hamas is crumbling. Russian President Vladimir Putin has invited Hamas leaders to Moscow for a visit, saying that he will press the group to give up violence and recognize Israel. France has come out in support of Moscow's approach.
Steinmeier said the Israelis were assured when he "made the conditions for talks (with Hamas) very clear."
The top German diplomat is also to meet with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Tuesday in Ramallah before departing for Jordan and Turkey, but he has not scheduled any session with the Islamist movement despite its landslide victory in a Jan. 25 general election.
The West is still trying to figure out out to handle the Hamas victory
Steinmeier and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have voiced their interest in returning to the Middle East peace process as laid down in the so-called road map. But the future of the peace negotiations remains unclear after the Hamas victory.
Israel's ambassador to Germany, Shimon Stein, has reiterated that Hamas would still have to acknowledge Israel's right to statehood and refrain from terrorist attacks before it could become a negotiating partner in the peace process
"Hamas remains on the European Union's list of terror organizations," Stein said. "I see no reason why Germany should change its attitude towards Hamas simply because the latter were elected into power."
The German foreign minister's trip to the Middle East also aims to defuse tensions between Europe and the Muslim world over the publication of caricatures depicting the Prophet Mohammed. The depictions have led to violent riots in many Muslim countries and have reignited the debate on whether the philosophical gulf between the West and the Muslim world can be bridged.
Students burn a danish flag protesting the caricatures
"I'm very much interested in de-escalating the current situation," Steinmeier said. "We should all strive to return to something we already had a while ago -- a dialogue between different cultures which also has to be a genuine dialogue between religions.”
Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder weighed in on the issue from the Middle East at a conference he has been attending in the Saudi city of Jeddah. He called for Europeans to show more sensitivity to the beliefs of Muslims.
"European integration is built upon the foundation of respect of other cultures, tolerance and the recognition of diversity," Schröder told the seventh annual edition of the forum, whose theme is: "Honoring identity and celebrating common ground."
"This includes refraining from acts that hurt honest religious sentiment. Unfortunately in the last few months this sensitivity has been lacking in many places, including Europe," he added.
Diplomacy with Iran
During his trip, Germany's foreign minister will also be explaining his government's stance on the Iran issue. Although negotiations on Tehran's uranium enrichment program seem to have reached in impasse, Steinmeier will make it clear that Berlin is continuing to explore all diplomatic avenues to reach a peaceful settlement of the conflict. While the United States has not completely ruled out a military move against Iran, the German foreign minister has strongly denied that his government is considering backing such a strategy. In an interview with German public television on the weekend, Steinmeier said he was not willing to debate moves which he said were not on the agenda.