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German vice chancellor visits Yad Vashem

Jens Thurau Jerusalem
June 7, 2022

Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck has been discussing cooperation on climate protection in the Middle East. But first, he paid an emotional visit to the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem.

Robert Habeck kneeling by his wreath
German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck laid a wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial siteImage: Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP

Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Robert Habeck seemed to be holding back the tears as laid a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

He kneeled down, straightened the ribbons, and later wrote a poem into the guest book commemorating the many millions of Jews murdered by the Nazis. It was a poem by Paul Celan, whose parents died in a camp in Transnistria, where his mother was shot and his father succumbed to typhus.

Habeck, who spent two hours visiting the memorial, said he had always been fascinated by the language in Celan's poems, which reduced everything to the essence. "Thank you very much for letting me be here," he said softly to his hosts, his voice faltering. Habeck holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and is a writer of children's books —  at home, he is well-known for emotional reactions and is often applauded for having a special way with words.

At this moment, the actual purpose of the Green Party politician's trip seemed almost forgotten. He is traveling to Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Jordan to promote environmental protection in a region so hot and dry that it can go up in flames — also in a political sense.

Germany seeks alternatives to Russian gas in Middle East

A wide range of issues

Habeck began his four-day trip on Monday, talking to Israeli politicians including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. It is remarkable that these meetings took place at all. Bennett's eight-party coalition is going through a serious crisis at the moment; the head of government is under constant pressure.

Unlike in early March, when Habeck traveled to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to secure more gas for Germany in a bid to replace energy imports from Russia, securing further energy supplies has not been the focus of talks in Israel.

Israel is considering building a pipeline to transport gas from the Leviathan natural gas field in the Mediterranean to Europe via Turkey. But that would not help Germany in the short term, Habeck said: "An investment that will be ready in seven or nine years is actually superfluous. After all, we want — and I expect — to move away from fossil fuels by then. In the long term, cooperation with the states in the Middle East and North Africa in the energy sector will be based on renewables."

The Middle East is already suffering from the consequences of the climate crisis.Jordan, for example, is considered one of the world's most arid regions. The German Economy Minister's goal is to bring the Israeli high-tech industry together with European capital.

But despite having the best conditions to produce solar energy, for example, the countries in the region have only just begun tapping the power of wind and sun. Only 7% of Israel's electricity comes from renewable sources. Now, the Israeli government is set to increase this share to 30% by 2030 and has launched energy cooperation with Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Habeck also sees opportunities for German companies to get involved here.

Robert Habeck Habeck sitting with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtajjeh
Robert Habeck Habeck also met with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtajjeh to discuss economic aid and ongoing political tensionsImage: Britta Pedersen/dpa/picture alliance

Habeck is in the region not only as the economy and climate protection minister but also as Germany's vice chancellor. So his political talks in Israel also touched briefly on the challenges posed by the war in Ukraine, in an attempt to explore options for mediation between Moscow and Kyiv. "My interlocutors here have pointed out that their position is that a war that is illegal under international law is unacceptable. But they also pointed out that Israel has a wide range of ties with Russia and that all diplomatic channels are being considered," he said after the talks. Adding that any diplomatic efforts could begin only once the fighting had ended.

This article was originally written in German.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau