Steinmeier visits Israel amid waning relations | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 01.06.2015
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Middle East

Steinmeier visits Israel amid waning relations

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Jerusalem Sunday, in a trip that highlighted Germany's dilemma of a great affinity for Israel amid growing unease with Israeli government policy.

Steinmeier (above, left) received an honorary doctorate from Jerusalem's Hebrew University, where he marveled at the thought of a German foreign minister speaking at an Israeli convocation for newly minted law school graduates.

"We have found each other through the darkness," Steinmeier said. "Germans and Israelis have grown together at their hearts."

He wished the students "mazal tov," Hebrew for 'good luck,' and quipped that Berlin's Jewish community was successful enough to sustain a good bagel shop, although he wouldn't know to judge their quality since he was "just a goy from Westphalia," using the Yiddish term for non-Jew.

Steinmeier spoke from the bottom of an open-air amphitheater flanked by stone walls under stately palm and pine trees and overlooking Jerusalem's rolling hills. The lively banter amid the enchanting scenery was a break from an intense day of shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Meetings in Jerusalem, Ramallah

In Jerusalem, Steinmeier met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and with President Reuven Rivlin, and urged Israel to find a way back to the two-state solution with the Palestinians. The two sides have not met for negotiations since April 2014, and prospects for restarting the peace process have looked more remote since Netanyahu swore in a hawkish, pro-settler government in early May.

Netanyahu told Steinmeier he was "committed to the idea that the only way we can achieve a lasting peace is through the concept of two states for two peoples."

Frank-Walter Steinmeier mit Rami Hamdallah in Ramallah

Steinmeier also met with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in Ramallah on Sunday

However, Netanyahu said that Palestinians had walked away from negotiations. "Tell the Palestinians to stop their campaign to delegitimize Israel. Tell them to get back to the negotiating table. Tell them that we should negotiate without preconditions," he said.

In Ramallah, Steinmeier met with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, who also reaffirmed "the Palestinian leadership's commitment to the two-state solution based on 1967 borders," including a capital in east Jerusalem.

Commitment to two-state solution 'ambiguous'

Michael Borchard, head of the Jerusalem office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, said Netanyahu's commitment to the two-state solution was ambiguous. Ahead of the Israeli general election in March, Netanyahu pledged to never let a Palestinian state rise on his watch, triggering international concern.

Netanyahu later stepped away from his comments, but Borchard said the sense that Israel may no longer intend to reach a two-state solution is "not understood" in Germany, where support for a two-state solution is widespread.

"This is the dilemma," Borchard told DW. "On the one hand the window for a timeframe [to create two states] is getting more narrow, and on the other [there's an Israeli] right-wing government not interested in making moves to a two-state solution."

Yoram Ben-Zeev, who served as Israel's ambassador to Germany from 2008 to 2012, said Steinmeier spoke at a time of waning relations between the two nations.

"There is a deficiency in the quality of the personal relations between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Netanyahu," said Ben-Zeev. "We are not at the verge of crisis, but for many years the trend was positive to strengthen bilateral and multilateral relations through the good offices of Germany and the EU, and that has been replaced by a minimal level of trust."

Ben-Zeev pointed to a recently announced Israeli plan to separate Israeli and Palestinian passengers on public transportation in the West Bank. Although the measure was repealed, Ben-Zeev said it raised red flags in Germany.

"I don't see any sanctions coming from Germany, I don't see any boycotts coming from Germany," Ben-Zeev said. "This is not important. What is important is the joint sense of mission that both countries do share."

'Two trains driving in different directions'

Recent polls underline an erosion of common purpose. In January, the German Bertelsmann Foundation polled Israelis and Germans on their common ties and found that only 36 percent of Germans see Israelis favorably. More than half of young Germans aged 18-29 had a poor opinion of Israel. In the other direction, two-thirds of Israelis had a good opinion of Germany, but among 18-29-year-olds, only 53 percent saw Germany favorably.

"Relations are very good now, but how about the future?" Borchard mused. "The younger German generation is post-militaristic, post-nationalist and post-religious. And Israel is the opposite of that. These are two trains driving in different directions."

Frank-Walter Steinmeier Ehrendoktorwürde an der Hebräischen Universität

Steinmeier, "just a goy from Westphalia," received an honorary doctorate from Jerusalem's Hebrew University

At Hebrew University, Steinmeier spoke after former Israeli President Shimon Peres, who used his speech to denounce growing calls to boycott Israel.

"There is no other solution that the two-state solution," Peres said to enthusiastic applause. "The whole world supports this solution, along with most of the residents of this country and most of the Knesset members, I believe."

Borchard, of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, remains doubtful a two-state solution would happen without outside pressure - including what he called "reasonable measures" from Germany. One such step took place last year, when Merkel temporarily suspended a subsidy of German gunboats to protest Israel's settlement policy.

"I'm absolutely against boycotts," he said. "But my feeling is Germany could be more self confident in its Middle East policy."