Merkel meets Netanyahu amid new strains in relations
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dined with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday amid tensions over Germany's abstention from a UN vote on the subject of Palestinian statehood and German ire over Israeli settlements.
Nearly a week after Germany abstained from voting on a resolution upgrading the Palestinians’ status at the UN in a last-minute reversal that incensed Israel, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Berlin Wednesday night amid strained relations between the two allies.
Netanyahu arrived in the German capital after a clash between the Israeli and German governments on the contentious Israeli settlement issue, which followed Germany’s abstention at the UN General Assembly vote.
A day after the November 29 vote granting the Palestinians “non-member observer” status at the UN, Israel announced plans to build new settlements in the sensitive “E1” zone east of Jerusalem – a prospect that would cut access from the West Bank to East Jerusalem.
Germany has joined the chorus of European condemnations over the move, calling it “a negative message” that is “eroding trust in its [Israel’s] willingness to negotiate” as “the land for a future Palestinian state is disappearing further”.
The unusually strongly worded statement from a nation that frequently stresses its unique relationship with Israel after the Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust highlights the strains between the two countries and Israel’s increasing isolation on the international stage.
THE FRANCE 24 DEBATE
THE DEBATE The Palestinian bid: what will enhanced UN status change? It comes amid growing rifts between Europe and Israel over the past week. While Germany and Britain abstained from the November 29 vote, France, Italy and Spain were among 14 EU nations that voted in favour of the Palestinian upgrade. The Czech Republic was the only European country that joined Israel in rejecting the proposal.
Relations between Europe and Israel further plummeted following Israel’s E1 settlement announcement.
Unlike France and Britain, Germany did not summon the Israeli ambassador to lodge a formal protest over the controversial settlement plan – considered illegal under international law.
But German analysts say Merkel is expected to personally admonish Netanyahu during talks in Berlin on Thursday.
Underscoring the extent of German-Israeli strains, an unnamed senior Israeli government official told Reuters that the Jewish state hoped Merkel would not repeat the admonishments herself in public during Netanyahu’s visit.
‘One of the most unpleasant conversations’
If the historic allies can barely contain their mutual disappointment and displeasure in public, in private, Israeli and German officials have had a series of heated arguments, according to German news reports.
A day before the UN vote, when Merkel’s foreign policy advisor phoned his Israeli counterpart to inform him about Germany’s last-minute decision to abstain, the two men ended up having “one of the most unpleasant conversations,” according to the German weekly, Der Spiegel.
According to Der Spiegel, on the eve of the vote, Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, music director of the Berlin-based Staatsoper opera house, advised German officials not to vote against the Palestinian petition, arguing that the resolution wording mentioned the two-state solution, which in itself entails a recognition of Israel's right to exist.
But beyond the private phone conversations, the German abstention underscored Merkel’s growing annoyance over what she views as Netanyahu’s unwillingness to make concessions, especially on the settlement issue.
According to the Israeli daily, Haaretz, the German chancellor has often felt misled and taken-for-granted by Netanyahu. “It is commonly known in Berlin that Merkel has no illusions regarding Netanyahu’s intentions as far as the peace process goes, and no longer believes he will surprise anyone with a sudden change of direction.
"Apparently, as far as Merkel is concerned, Netanyahu cares more about tactics and political survival than about a long-term strategy that would secure the future of Israel and the Jewish state,” noted Haaretz.
German submarines, anti-tank weapons still bound for Israel
But while Merkel may have reservations over Netanyahu’s vision and ability to secure Israel’s longterm security, for her part, the German chancellor has been unwavering in her commitment to help secure Israel.
In March, Berlin said it would sell Israel a sixth military submarine and shoulder millions of euros of the cost. In an interview with Haaretz, a senior German official told the Israeli daily that Merkel had never considered a sanction as severe as halting the supply of nuclear submarines to Israel, since "as far as she's concerned, Israel's security is sacred."
Last week, Germany's Federal Security Council also agreed to the export of shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons and bunker-busting weapons to Israel to help it defend itself from attacks by Hamas from Gaza, according to Der Spiegel.
Indeed Germany’s unstinting commitment to Israeli security could provide the basis for some cordial discourse during Merkel’s meetings with Netanyahu this week. The purpose of Netanyahu’s visit is a long-planned bilateral summit on issues ranging from Israel's defence and security to greater cooperation in science and research.
In a sign of a more conciliatory tone, Merkel issued a video message over the weekend saying she looked forward to "friendly discussions" with Netanyahu.
The dinner in Berlin followed Netanyahu’s brief visit earlier Wednesday to the Czech Republic to thank the only European state to vote against the UN resolution upgrading the Palestinian status.
Nearly a week later, Netanyahu is still smarting from the vote while his hostess is seething over Israel’s E1 settlement. Thursday's talks in the German capital promised to be very tense indeed.