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Anti-Israel Remarks Plague German Party

May 21, 2002

Jewish leaders in Germany are waging a war of words against the Free Democrats over anti-Israel remarks made by a Syrian-born party member. Now, FDP leaders are isolating the two politicians at the scandal's epicenter.

Free Democrats Jamal Karsli and Jürgen Möllemann deny allegations that they are anti-Semitic.Image: AP

In Syrian-born, German passport-carrying politician Jamal Karsli, leaders of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) saw an opportunity to secure the sympathies and votes of some of Germany's three million residents of Arab descent. But instead of providing a desired political bridge and vote magnet, the Karsli strategy backfired.

The Karsli scandal peaked over the weekend as FDP Chairman Guido Westerwelle and other senior party leaders sought to isolate the politician from the party. But the greatest internal criticism has been leveled at Jürgen Möllemann, the FDP's state chairman in North Rhine-Westphalia, and an unequivocal supporter of Karsli.

Möllemann enraged the FDP's national leadership after he accused Michel Friedman, vice president of the Central Council of Jews, on public television station ZDF last Thursday of fueling the spread of anti-Semitism in Germany with his "intolerant, hateful style."

The interview prompted FDP leader Westerwelle to distance himself from Möllemann and to ask "every member of the party to be conscious of tradition and to carefully weigh his words."

Free Democrat leaders are also calling on Karsli and Möllemann to exit the party before the scandal takes a greater toll on its election-year prospects.

The criticism surrounding 45-year-old Karsli first erupted in April, when, in published comments, he accused the Israeli army of using "Nazi methods" during its occupation of areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

Karsli later apologized for his remarks, saying it was a "slip" he would not repeat.

Emergency meeting planned

Over the weekend, FDP Chairman Guido Westerwelle and the party's honorary chairman, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, called for Karsli's expulsion, saying the Free Democrats had "no room" for him after his anti-Israel outbursts. Westerwelle has also called for an emergency leadership meeting on June 3 to determine Karsli's fate.

Karsli's comments were published in April when he switched to the Free Democrats from the Green Party, which he believed had become too biased in favor of Israel.

The Third Reich analogy outraged Joschka Fischer, Germany's foreign minister and a Green. "I never thought the party of Ignaz Bubis would become a catch basin for anti-Israeli positions," he said in April, referring to the former FDP politician and president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

Though Fischer's party is trailing the FDP in polls for the upcoming September 22 elections by as much as six percentage points, the foreign minister has been far from alone in his criticism.

An FDP boycott?

Writing in Germany’s leading Jewish newspaper, the "Jüdische Allgemeine", in April, historian Michael Wolfsohn raised the specter of turning voters away from the Free Democrats. "Jews in Germany should consider calling for an election boycott of the FDP," he wrote.

Jürgen W. Möllemann auf dem FDP-Parteitag
Jürgen W. Möllemann at FDP party meeting in MayImage: AP

Meanwhile, Möllemann (photo), who in addition to his role as an FDP state leader is also head of the German-Arab Society, has pushed on with his vociferous defense of Karsli. "I know of no reason that would justify an expulsion," he said earlier this month.

He has also described Mr. Karsli’s comments as "fundamentally sensible," and said that his own criticisms were in line with UN resolutions against the Israeli government led by Ariel Sharon.

Meanwhile, anger about Kasli's status in the party continues to grow on the other side.

"It’s unacceptable that someone who expresses anti-Semitism in Stürmer jargon is a functionary in a democratic party," Friedman told the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" newspaper on Friday. (Der Stürmer was a Nazi-aligned newspaper whose editor, Julius Streicher, was hanged at Nuremberg for war crimes.)

Damage control mode

Seeking to avoid a political scarlet letter with international implications over the uproar, Guido Westerwelle, the party’s chancellor candidate who is also trying to secure a slot for the FDP in the next government, has been operating in full damage-control mode.

"The statements made by Mr. Karsli are unacceptable in both form and content," he said on Sunday.

And even Karsli has made an effort to extinguish the fire. In a recent letter to Möllemann, he wrote, "I am not an anti-Semite. Rather, I believe in the peaceful coexistence of Israelis and Arabs in the Middle East."

He also said he supported "every sentence" of the FDP’s election year manifesto. That document supports the "untouchable right of existence of Israel as well as the creation of an independent Palestinian state." However, he noted, he would remain a critic of the Israeli government because it was "blocking" the way to peace.

Meanwhile, the tit-for-tat continues. On Friday, Green Party co-leader Claudia Roth asked police to investigate Möllemann for possible slander charges over the Friedman quotes he gave ZDF. And on Monday, FDP parliamentary candidate Oliver Stirbock filed his own libel suit against Fischer for characterizing the party as a "catch basin" for anti-Israeli positions.