Thursday, August 27, 2009

MERKEL & NETANYAHU MEET TODAY IN BERLIN

The PM in Europe


Were it not for fresh revelations about the cause of Michael Jackson's demise and embarrassing questions about British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's involvement in setting the Lockerbie bomber free, the media in England might have devoted itself to more thoroughly bashing Israel on the occasion of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's visit to London this week.

Alas, the Guardian on Tuesday relegated its two anti-Zionist pieces to page 16. The Times carried a Ramallah-datelined interview with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad on the inside pages. The Telegraph reported (incorrectly) that Netanyahu was about to concede on the settlement freeze issue, but worried that "his nationalist foreign minister" had "inflamed the situation by dismissing the prospect of a diplomatic breakthrough." The Independent tried to uncover the real reason Israel has lifted checkpoints in the West Bank including around Nablus, the "town once synonymous with the Palestinian resistance." According to one local, it was a temporary charade put on for the Americans and Europe.

That was the context for yesterday's meeting between Netanyahu and his "good friend" Brown at No. 10 Downing Street. Britain indeed counts itself as a "true friend" of Israel deeply concerned over a Jewish presence beyond the 1949 Armistice Lines. Yet despite incessant pressure from pro-Palestinian advocates for a boycott, Israel-UK trade remains strong. Netanyahu also thanked Brown for his support on the Iranian issue. Britain does not promote trade with Iran, though the extent of commerce between the two countries is hard to gauge since much of it takes place surreptitiously via the United Arab Emirates.

ON THURSDAY, Netanyahu is to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. The last embers of hope that economic penalties could sway Ayatollah Ali Khamenei not to proceed with his bomb may well rest with her. Unfortunately, Germany has the distinction of being Iran's second biggest trading partner after China.

Germany is deeply involved in trying to influence events in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. It has lent its good offices to help free Israeli captives; it provides important military support to Israel. After Netanyahu's path breaking Bar-Ilan speech in June, Merkel telephoned with words of encouragement. Germany is also heavily involved in aiding the Palestinians - spending $50 million on West Bank sewage treatment plants.

Popular attitudes in Germany toward Israel are little different than elsewhere in Europe. The Economist recently described Germany as "a place built on consensus - in the workplace, in society and in politics."

It must exasperate Germans that Israelis and Palestinians have still not buried the hatchet. But they place the onus squarely on Israel because of the "occupation." It does not occur to them that unremitting Palestinian rejectionism is the main obstacle to peace. That explains why President Horst Kohler was tone deaf to Israeli outrage over awarding the Federal Cross of Merit to the anti-Zionist campaigner Felicia Langer.

During Operation Cast Lead, polls showed that Germans found Israel "aggressive" (49 percent) and "ruthless" (59%). Seventy percent of young Germans rejected the idea of a special relationship with Israel because of the Shoah. In fact, 13% opposed the existence of a Jewish state altogether.

In this context, it is notable that Merkel feels quite differently. During a March 2007 visit to Israel she insisted that Germany did have a "historic responsibility" to the Jewish state. "It means for me, as a German chancellor, Israel's security is non-negotiable." She has a reputation for being "a strong backer of Israel" and "instinctively pro-American" in venues where these are not necessarily meant as compliments.

Netanyahu arrives in Berlin a month before parliamentary elections that may see Merkel's Christian Democratic Union in a position to jettison its "grand coalition" with Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier's Social Democratic Party. Arguably, one reason German policy has been less demonstrably pro-Israel than Merkel's rhetoric is Steinmeier's influence.

Guido Westerwelle of the Free Democratic Party, a likely Merkel coalition partner, is in the running for the foreign minister job. When Westerwelle's homosexuality was exposed, he was "smeared" with the - unproven - allegation of being "excessively pro-Israel."

After the September 27 elections, Israelis are hopeful that Merkel will find a way to bring her sentiments and her government's polices - especially on Iran - into greater harmony

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