European Parliament President Martin Schulz said Thursday it was “a shame” that a group of MKs from the right-wing Jewish Home party walked out during his speech the previous day at the Knesset, saying that the backlash he was subjected to was similar to that meted out to US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Schulz, who concluded a visit to the region on Wednesday night, caused a minor diplomatic commotion during his address in the Knesset plenum, which, while largely pro-Israel, included a passage asking why Israel allows far more water use per capita for Israelis than for Palestinians in the West Bank. He also called on Israel to consider easing its blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Schulz told the German daily Die Welt He that he was “surprised and concerned by the harsh reaction” because “I gave a pro-Israel speech.” The lawmakers who disrupted the speech belong to “a party of hard-liners” who respond to “every critical word that bothers them in this way,” he said, and noted that US Secretary of State John Kerry has been treated in “the same way.”
MK Moti Yogev of the party suggested last month that Kerry’s peace mission was driven by anti-Semitic and anti-Israel feelings. His statement was condemned by Jewish groups, including the ADL and AJC, and he later withdrew the anti-Semitic allegation.
Reacting to Schulz’s speech, Yogev said that Palestinians received the same amount of water as Israelis and that Israel was “taking care” of Gazans, providing them with food and cement “that is being used against” Israel.
“His support for Palestinians who incite for the destruction of Israel, from the Knesset podium, 70 years after the Holocaust, is a chutzpah without parallel,” Yogev said.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett also evoked the Holocaust in criticizing the German politician, saying that Schulz’s statements were “very grave,” and asserting that he would “not accept false moralizing against the people of Israel, in Israel’s Knesset. Certainly not in German.”
It was “a shame” that the MKs walked out, Schulz said on Thursday. In the Knesset speech, he was “required to express the position of the European Parliament,” he noted, and could “not just say the things that please everyone.” Several MKs and government officials present gave him a standing ovation at the end of his address, he added.
The commotion began when, during his speech, Schulz related that he had held a meeting two days earlier with young Palestinians in Ramallah. “One of the questions from these young men that moved me the most was: How can it be that Israelis are allowed to use 70 liters [of water] per day and Palestinians only 17?” he related.
At that point, several right-wing MKs yelled out in protest, calling the figures Palestinian lies, and a number of Jewish Home party lawmakers walked out. Later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took Schulz to task, accusing him of of having “selective hearing.”
An Israeli environmentalist who spoke to The Times of Israel said that Schulz’s figures regarding Palestinian consumption of water were way off, that the ratio of water use he cited was more accurate, but that the discrepancy was also a function of factors including Israel’s major desalination efforts.
The German politician was “surprised and also affected by the harsh reaction of some MKs, since he delivered a pro-Israel speech, which, among other things, confirmed Israel’s right to exist and its population’s right to security,” his spokesman, Armin Machmer, said Wednesday night.
“He merely asked a question, whether a claim put to him in many places about the [Palestinians’ restricted use of] water was true,” Machmer said. “It is a pity that in the public perception only this part of the speech is being discussed.”
Schulz, in an interview with The Times of Israel conducted before his address to the Knesset, presented himself as a staunch backer of Israel who personally does not even support the labeling of settlement products.
While he insisted that Jewish settlements in the West Bank are illegal and an obstacle to the peace process, he said it was more important to think about how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than to debate the settlements’ legal status.
Based on the Fourth Geneva Convention, the EU considers settlements illegal, he said. “But I don’t want to constantly debate questions of legality. I’m interested in pragmatic solutions. How can settlement construction be stopped? How can we reach sensible agreements?”
Schulz flatly rejected the notion of an EU boycott against Israeli or even settlement products. He also briefly addressed the issue of the labeling of West Bank goods, which the EU is expected to introduce at some point in the future.
Schulz, who hails from Aachen, Germany, became the European Parliament’s president in 2012. He first made worldwide headlines in 2003, when former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi told him that he was the perfect candidate to play a kapo in a Nazi movie. Schulz is currently the German Social Democratic Party’s top candidate for European Parliament elections in May, and is rumored to be considering a run for the presidency of the European Commission.