It was quite understandable that German President Joachim Gauck chose the newly built girls school in the Palestinian village of Burin as the first stop on his visit to the Palestinian territories Thursday. Financed by the German government to the tune of nearly a million euros, it was completed around the time of his visit. And he, or rather his staff, presumably considered that its very location rather symbolizes the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A small village south of Nablus with fewer than 3,000 inhabitants, Burin is a stone’s-throw away from the Jewish settlement of Yitzhar. The red-tiled rooftops were visible from the entranceway to the school that Gauck ceremoniously opened.
While the president was talking about the value of education, and praising the Palestinians for being among the “most literate people in the region,” he could see, to his left, a settlement that The New York Times once dubbed an “extremist bastion on the hilltops.” Only last Saturday, a settler nearby shot a Palestinian man — one more incident in a recent flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian confrontation in the area.
Still, as with all the events of his four-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, which he wrapped up on Thursday, Germany’s charming new president was able to hit the right notes in Burin.
Palestinian Authority Education Minister Lamis Alami took the opportunity of his presence to slam Israel for tolerating settler violence and various other forms of “near-daily oppression.” Then a boy in a checkered shirt chanted some Koranic verses in honor of the special guest. Gauck, for his part, empathically acknowledged the hardships of the people of Burin, but did not get too lost in politics.
Welcomed by a cute guard of honor — two rows of girls in brown school uniforms, with Palestinian flags sewn to their chests — he encouraged the students to study hard because, he said, the future Palestinian state needs educated people.
“Education is important in order to help us to question things, to understand other perspectives, and to solve conflicts. These are important preconditions for a peaceful coexistence — in one’s country and with other peoples,” he said.
If the Palestinian officials present were hoping for words of condemnation for Israel from Gauck, whose position is largely ceremonial, they were to be disappointed. His visit truly focused on the school.
Painted in two different tones of pink, it has space for 80 students. The previous school could not accommodate all the local students, so until this week they attended classes in two shifts.
The people of Burin were friendly to their guest. German flags hung alongside Palestinian ones, and large banners welcomed the president in almost perfect German. (In their defense, the correct application of the genitive in German is complex indeed.)
One Palestinian speaker said they always cheered for Germany during soccer world cups and were “always sad when Germany loses.” He probably wasn’t aware that Germany’s national squad was playing Israel later that day.
After the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Gauck and his partner Daniela Schadt sat down on a staircase inside the school building and chatted with a number of veiled students. A few minutes later, a few girls showed the president that they really enjoyed the new basketball court, while the school band — largely percussion instruments — stood on the bleachers and cheered them on. Gauck quickly sampled some local delicacies before he and his entourage headed south to Ramallah for the political (but much less colorful) part of the program: meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
‘Initially there is a flood of emotion, horror at the extent of evil, sympathy, empathy, mourning — because of the fate of a single child or because of the millions of innocent victims’
At a press conference that followed those meetings, Gauck reiterated Berlin’s commitment to the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the framework of a two-state solution. The German government’s main focuses are on education and security, he said, noting that it contributes 70 million euros annually to Palestinian state-building efforts.
A former Protestant preacher, Gauck became popular for his role as a dissident in Communist East Germany, where he grew up as the son of early members of Hitler’s Nazi party. He does not belong to any party and when his predecessor, the younger but much less charismatic Christian Wulff, stepped down earlier this year amidst corruption charges, Gauck was voted into office with the support of all major parties in the Bundestag.
When he decided to visit Israel just weeks into his term — this was his first trip outside Europe and his first official state visit — Gauck received much advance praise. And while the Hebrew media took little notice of his presence, it made headlines back home, mostly positive.
“It became a bigger story than we expected,” said one German reporter, adding that visits by German leaders — especially figureheads with no political clout — usually create little buzz.
Gauck used big rhetoric wherever he went, words that on paper might sound corny or exaggerated. In Burin, he professed himself “excited” about the friendly reception and enthused that the village “impressed me with its beauty.” The residents were plainly delighted.
During his Tuesday visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, he spent nearly 10 minutes on a lengthy entry in the guestbook, which left some readers teary-eyed. “Initially there is a flood of emotion, horror at the extent of evil, sympathy, empathy, mourning — because of the fate of a single child or because of the millions of innocent victims,” he wrote.
Gauck, 72, knew that any German president coming to Israel is walking a tightrope, first and foremost because of the complicated history of German-Jewish relations. But the present is crucial as well. Berlin remains one of Jerusalem’s most important allies, and it is no secret that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is not happy with Israel’s settlement policies.
Aware that he was not in Israel to make policy speeches, Gauck trod lightly, for the most part. In his speech at the state banquet at the President’s Residence, he spoke for 10 minutes about his past growing up in an anti-Zionist regime that did not allow him to properly understand the Holocaust. He said that Germany would “determinedly confront” those who threaten Israel but added vaguely, in what almost sounded like a throwaway sentence, that he hoped Israel would “send a signal” regarding settlements.
To be sure, Gauck brought up the same issue in his conversations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, suggesting that settlements are really in nobody’s interest and could impede a peace agreement. Unsurprisingly, the Israeli leaders begged to differ. But the disagreements were muted, and aired in the context of a “special” relationship, within the legitimate rights of friends to express criticism.
Despite all the diplomatic tact and the enthusiastic verbiage, however, Gauck did make one interesting statement that went beyond the kind but characterless utterances of his predecessor: He caused something of a stir by apparently contradicting Merkel’s ironclad commitment to protecting the Jewish state from a nuclear Iran.
In a 2008 speech in the Knesset, the German chancellor had declared that Israel’s security is part of her country’s “raison d’être” (“Staatsraison” in German). Therefore, she vowed, “Israel’s security will never be open to negotiation.” While she never explicitly pledged to defend Israel militarily if it ever came to a confrontation between the Islamic Republic and the Jewish state, some commentators took that statement as a guarantee of exactly that, and criticized her for making promises she didn’t intend to keep.
In contrast, Gauck said Tuesday, rather less dramatically, that “Israel’s security and right of existence are determining factors of German policy — Israel shall live in peace and secure borders.” When reporters asked him a day later whether he agreed with Merkel’s dictum of Israel’s security being Germany’s “Staatsraison,” he responded that he wouldn’t have used that phrase. “I don’t want to think in war scenarios,” he said, adding, however, that “Germany should be the very last country to revoke its friendship and solidarity to Israel.”
Some Germans were apparently dismayed by the shift; not only is the president not supposed to contradict the chancellor, but with Iran upping its belligerent rhetoric against Israel and remaining inflexible in nuclear talks, this is also not the time to disavow one’s support for Israel. But others appreciated the president’s honesty: after all, it is simply not realistic to promise Germany would take up arms in a possible war between Iran and Israel, they argue.
In any case, however, as Gauck headed back to Schloss Bellevue in Berlin on Thursday evening, few Israelis took much notice of this debate. Most decision makers here aren’t counting on European assistance anyway.