European Parliament President Martin Schulz was “surprised” about the polemic caused by his Knesset speech Wednesday, his spokesperson said, adding that his controversial remarks about Israel limiting the amount of water Palestinians may consume were meant as a question and not as statement of fact.
Schulz 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, told The Times of Israel 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, who concluded a visit to the region on Wednesday night, caused a minor diplomatic commotion earlier in the day when he delivered a generally pro-Israel speech in the Knesset plenum that contained a passage perceived by some right-wing politician as containing false accusations over Israeli policies.
He recounted a meeting held 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?” Schulz related.
At this point in his speech, several right-wing MKs yelled out in protest, calling the figures Palestinian lies, and a number of Jewish Home party lawmakers walked out. Minutes after Schulz finished speaking, Economy Minister and Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett released a statement demanding an apology. Later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took Schulz to task, accusing him of of having “selective hearing.”
Schulz, in an interview with The Times of Israel conducted before his address to the Knesset, presented himself as a staunch supporter 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 go ahead 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?”
The area known as E1, situated between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim, is especially problematic because it would cut East Jerusalem from the West Bank, Schulz, a Social Democrat, said. Nevertheless, the focus of the international debate should be trying to prevent further settlement construction from derailing the current peace negotiations, he said. “I’m much more interested in that than in the question of the legality or the illegality. Whether they are legal or illegal — they exist. The settlements are there, and therefore we have to deal with them.”
At a briefing with Israeli journalists early Wednesday morning, Schulz did warn the Israeli government of the consequence of continued settlement building: “We think that the settlements are for sure an obstacle for the process between both sides here and they represent a real problem in the international relations of Israel with a considerable number of its partners and friends.”
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.
“There in an enormous pressure, also within the European Parliament, to label [products made by Jews in the West Bank] because a lot of my colleagues consider the settlements as illegal and think that the rule should be that products coming from regions with an illegal status couldn’t have a normal access to the European internal market,” he said. Asked for his personal opinion on the matter, Schulz replied that he is not convinced that introducing such a labeling regime is the right step.
“I don’t believe that with such a rule we improve the situation here. Therefore I have not yet a conclusive opinion about that, but my feeling is always that we should [opt] for strong economic measures at the European Union in a moment where it is a) necessary and b) meaningful.” Schulz said he was not sure whether introducing a labeling system would be presently helpful or whether it could actually ignite Israeli anger and present an obstacle to finding a peaceful solution. “So I’m not sure how I would decide.”
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.
Israeli observers often portray the European Parliament in Brussels as the EU body most critical of Israel, a characterization that Schulz rejected. “The parliament might conduct debates critical of Israel, but it is not against Israel,” he told The Times of Israel.
“The European Parliament is not more critical of Israel than other institutions, but in the European Parliament people debate more openly,” he continued. “A multinational parliamentary assembly — a parliament with 750 delegates from 28 countries — logically discusses in a much larger scope than a national parliament. The delegates naturally reflect the heterogenous opinions about Israel that exist in Europe.” The parliament has “continuously, with large majorities, voted for increased cooperation with Israel,” he added.
The upcoming elections to the European Parliament might bring about a decisive victory for far-right parties, but Jerusalem has little reason to be concerned, Schulz said. “We have right-wing parties that are openly anti-Semitic — [such as the French National Front, led by Marie] Le Pen — but we also have right-wing parties that are very pro-Israel — [such as the Dutch Party for Freedom, led by Geert] Wilders, in the Netherlands for example,” he told The Times of Israel. “In that regard it is not predictable. I don’t believe that the shift to the right in the European Parliament will lead to an anti-Israel line.”
“The view the Europeans are against Israel, I repeat it, is wrong,” Schulz insisted. “The EU, with an overwhelming majority in all institutions of the union, sticks to the partnership, the friendship and the specific responsibility to Israel. But it is also quite clear that not every action of the Israeli government is immediately supported,” he said. “An exchange of different views is not a break of friendship.”