BERLIN — The current climate in the Middle East does not allow for major steps toward the creation of a Palestinian state, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said here Tuesday, calling instead for small steps to safeguard a future two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Now is certainly not the time to make really comprehensive progress, but you can achieve improvements in certain places,” she said at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The European Union, and Germany as a member state, is very concerned about seeing things realistically,” Merkel said. “We know the threat of terrorism that Israel has to endure. We believe, on the other hand, that we have to advance a process of peaceful coexistence, and this, according to our opinion, is ultimately built on a two-state solution.”
Berlin is ready to help with any steps Israelis and Palestinians can take to advance the cause of peaceful coexistence, she said, “especially regarding questions of economic development.”
Netanyahu, during a subsequent briefing for the traveling press, hailed Merkel’s statement, arguing that the world has slowly been coming to the same realization he had arrived at long ago. “When I said it a year ago, everyone came out and attacked me viciously,” he said. “Today we hear same things from the leaders of the world, not only from [US President Barack] Obama [who has stated he no longer believes Israeli-Palestinian peace can be achieved in the coming months] and Merkel. Even the leader of the opposition [in Israel, Isaac Herzog] understands it now.”
There is need to take certain steps, however, to calm the situation on the ground, Netanyahu told a handful of reporters who covered his one-day trip to the German capital. “It is in our interest to fight terror in the West Bank and also in the Gaza Strip, and one way of doing this is to stabilize an improve the situation for the population on the ground.”
During the press conference, Netanyahu rejected a French initiative for a regional conference to discuss the stalled peace process, arguing that the move was doomed to failure and that bilateral negotiations to peace are the only path to Palestinian statehood.
Earlier in the day, French Ambassador Patrick Maisonnaive met in Jerusalem with Foreign Ministry political director Alon Ushpiz to present Paris’s plan, first announced by then-foreign minister Laurent Fabius, to convene a regional peace conference. If the conference fails to lead to a significant advancement toward the two-state solution, France will unilaterally recognize Palestinian statehood, Fabius had threatened.
Responding to a question by The Times of Israel, Netanyahu said he found the French proposal “bizarre.”
“It says: We will hold an international conference but if you do not succeed we are already predetermining the result – we will recognize a Palestinian state,” he said.
The initiative does not take into account several issues of crucial importance to Israel, Netanyahu lamented. “It does not matter. We will determine that there is a state, without any conditions regarding recognition, security or anything,” he said sarcastically.
On a more serious note, he added: “Of course this ensures that this conference will fail because if the Palestinians know that their demand will be met a priori, and they do not need to do anything, then there is certainly an internal contradiction here, because they will not do anything. There is one way to advance peace – direct negotiations without preconditions between the sides. This is the true way, and I think that anyone who tries to deviate from it will not advance successful negotiations.”
Netanyahu denied that the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, had spoken with him about a planned report containing suggestions on how to jump-start the peace process.
On Saturday, Mogherini wrote on her blog that she had discussed such a plan with Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, “who assured to me their willingness to engage in this new process.”
Netanyahu said Jerusalem’s relations with the EU were improving, citing a recent conversation with Mogherini in which the two tried to mitigate the tension over Brussels’s decision to label West Bank goods.
“The State of Israel has to be treated fairly. We are not the root cause of the problems of the Middle East. We are an important part of the solution,” he said. “If Israel weren’t there, the Middle East’s entire western part would be flooded by the forces of Islamist fanaticism. Together with this flood, many millions more [refugees] would come to Europe. Israel is Western civilization’s iron wall in the heart of the Middle East.”