Ministers′ visit refines German course in Middle East affairs | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 14.06.2011
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Ministers' visit refines German course in Middle East affairs

Two German ministers traveled to the Palestinian territories on Tuesday, hoping to expand Germany's role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and work out the details of economic investment in Gaza.

Dirk Niebel and Guido Westerwelle

The ministers hope to expand Germany's role

The German government decided to double-team its their diplomatic mission in Israel and the Palestinian Territories on Tuesday. While Development Minister Dirk Niebel went to the Gaza Strip to discuss German development investments, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle went to the West Bank to raise Germany's profile in the stalling Middle East peace process.

First, he tried to dissuade the Palestinian Authority from its plan to seek recognition of an independent Palestinian state at the United Nations.

"If unilateral steps are taken now, they might be meant well, and that might even express one's own feelings," Westerwelle said. "But if you think it through, there's a big danger that this will cause the situation to escalate."

Role playing

This is in line with the European Union's official position - and also with the stance of the United States - but it opens up a gap between Germany and other members of the European Union, most notably France, which has expressed some sympathy for the Palestinian plan.

Guido Westerwelle shakes hands with a women worker at a Jerusalem hospital

Westerwelle also met with staff at a Jerusalem hospital

However, Germany's impact and relevance in this intractable conflict can be debated. The country's history could be seen as the elephant standing in the middle of the room when it comes to negotiations involving Israel.

Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow at Britain's Chatham House think tank, believes Germany's role is vital – if only for economic reasons.

"Anyone that will use Germany's past to question its role now, will do it for tactical reasons, not really for practical or strategic reasons," Mekelberg said. "Whenever an agreement would be signed, the European Union will help to bankroll such an agreement, and Germany, as one of the strongest economies, if not the strongest, will bear some of the burden."

Top priority: education

Speaking of Germany's economic clout – Development Minister Dirk Niebel's mission was to oversee German investments in the Gaza Strip. Germany is pledging around 90 million euros to help develop Gaza's water supply and necessary infrastructure projects. He stressed one major area that Germany sees as crucial.

Dirk Niebel and construction workers at a sewage project

Niebel stopped by a sewage project in central Gaza

"The main thing is education," Niebel said. "Education, education, education. In cooperation with the United Nations, we have promised to build two more schools for four and a half thousand children, to give these children a chance, on the one hand, and on the other hand so that they aren't dependent on Hamas teachers, which is often the only alternative."

For the time being, all this might be just a drop in the ocean. It's true that the Palestinian economy is currently growing, but only in the West Bank. Figures just released by the UN put unemployment in Gaza at over 45 percent – a situation that feeds extremist forces

Against this volatile background, the Palestinian push for independence is certainly a risk. But it's one which the Palestinian Authority has decided is worth taking – even unilaterally.

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Susan Houlton

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