Ahead of possible annexation, German FM comes to Israel with a delicate mission

Heiko Maas, who said he entered politics because of Auschwitz, will reiterate Berlin’s enduring friendship but also warn Jerusalem against move seen as violating international law

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on March 26, 2018. Kobi Gideon / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on March 26, 2018. Kobi Gideon / GPO)

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who famously said he entered politics because of Auschwitz, arrived in Israel Wednesday morning for a diplomatically delicate visit in which he will reiterate his country’s unshakable commitment to Israel’s security, but also express vehement opposition to Jerusalem’s planned unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank.

Maas, the first foreign official to visit Israel since the new government was sworn last month, was meeting his counterpart Gabi Ashkenazi, followed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, before heading on to Amman for a meeting with his Jordanian counterpart, Ayman Sadafi. He will speak to Palestinian leaders via video conference, rather than in person, because of Israeli COVID-19 restrictions.

“The fact that German Foreign Minister Maas will be the first European visit since the coronavirus pandemic broke out reflects the close and varied bilateral relations,” the German Embassy in Tel Aviv said in an upbeat statement Tuesday. “Therefore, Foreign Minister Maas’s conversations will deal with the full spectrum of bilateral and regional issues, including the future of the Middle East peace process.”

But it is obvious that Maas’s meetings here will not all be to Jerusalem’s liking, as the main issue on the agenda is a major sticking point in bilateral relations: the planned annexation of the Jordan Valley and all settlements across the West Bank.

In fact, the short trip to the Middle East — after Jerusalem and Tel Aviv he will continue to Amman and fly home the same day — represents a unique challenge for Germany’s top diplomat.

On the one hand, Berlin is deeply committed to its friendship with Israel, with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2008 declaration of Israel’s security being a German raison d’etat still standing. On the other hand, Europe’s most powerful nation feels equally committed to global peace and security and to regional stability, as well as to values of democracy, human rights and international law.

These two pillars of German foreign policy are bound to clash if Israel goes ahead with its annexation plans.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas takes the oath of office after the new government was appointed after German Chancellor Angela Merkel was elected for a fourth term as chancellor in the German parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, March 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Maas, 53, is generally seen as one of Israel’s best friends in the international arena, someone who genuinely cares about the Jewish state.

“Heiko Maas is a true friend of Israel. He is an important partner for us,” said Avi Nir-Feldklein, the head of the Foreign Ministry’s Europe department, recalling the German Social Democrat citing the Holocaust as the primary motivation for becoming politically active.

“I did not enter politics because of [former chancellor] Willy Brandt. I also didn’t go into politics because of the peace movement or ecological issues. I entered politics because of Auschwitz,” Maas declared in his first speech as foreign minister in March 2018.

Maas has since overseen several policy changes that Jerusalem long had high on its wish list, including significantly improving Berlin’s voting pattern vis-a-vis Israel in international organizations, and outlawing Hezbollah. Under his leadership, German government planes also brought home hundreds of Israelis stranded in the four corners of the world during the coronavirus crisis.

But his visit Wednesday will be overshadowed by discussions over annexation, which Germany, like most countries, staunchly opposes.

In a joint statement last month with Palestinian Authority Mohammad Shtayyeh, with whom Maas is also scheduled to speak — though not visit in person, due to coronavirus restrictions — on Wednesday, the German minister “noted with grave concern” the new Israeli government’s annexation plan.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, shakes hands with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas during their meeting, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 26, 2018.(AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

“Annexation of any part of occupied Palestinian territories including East Jerusalem constitutes a clear violation of international law and seriously undermines the chances for the two-state solution within a final status agreement,” the statement read.

Germany’s envoy to the United Nations recently warned annexation would have “serious, negative repercussions on Israel’s standing within the international community.” And German Ambassador to Israel Susanne Wasum-Rainer, in a recent television interview, said annexation is likely to harm not only Jerusalem’s already-tense relationship with the European Union but also bilateral ties with Berlin.

Her words may have sounded to some like a veiled threat of possible sanctions. But will Germany, 75 years after the Holocaust and 55 years after establishing diplomatic ties with Israel, really call for punitive measures against the Jewish state? For many Israeli officials, this is unthinkable.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas lay a wreath during a ceremony at the Hall of Remembrance in the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, during his official state visit in Israel. March 25, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Germany will not go off the deep end,” an Israeli official told reporters this week. “The Germans are not in favor of sanctions, and will not recognize a Palestinian state. They are pragmatic. Their main goal is to guarantee [regional] stability. They don’t want to cause a major upset. Rather, they are going to look for ways to encourage us and the Palestinians to return to talks.”

That is not to say that Jerusalem doesn’t anticipate Berlin taking action in some form or another. The Germans may change the “atmosphere,” the official predicted. “They will become less open to listen to us and our worries, and it may become more difficult for us to get them to help us in various arenas.”

Germany will insist on its basic principles regarding the rule of law, including international law. This is the basis on which the EU was founded, and Germany was one of co-founders.

Why is annexation such a big deal for Germany? Because since World War II the country is “afraid of its own shadow,” the Israeli official suggested. Scared of becoming again what they were in the 1940s, Germans today are very keen on maintaining international law and order, he said. Hence, Berlin will forcefully oppose any action seen as legitimizing the acquisition of territory by force.

“Despite its friendship, Germany cannot support an Israeli annexation,” said Maya Sion Tzidkiyahu, who directs the program on Israel-Europe relations at Mitvim — The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. “Germany will insist on its basic principles regarding the rule of law, including international law. This is the basis on which the EU was founded, and Germany was one of its co-founders.”

Germany’s role in the international fallout from a possible Israeli annexation is also amplified by the fact that, coincidentally, it will on July 1 assume the rotating presidencies of both the United Nations Security Council and the European Council.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a media conference at the end of an EU summit in Brussels on June 21, 2019 (AP/Olivier Matthys)

And while the US is sure to veto any move against Israel at the Security Council, the EU is very likely to impose punitive measures if Israel goes ahead with unilateral annexation. The upcoming EU presidency will be Merkel’s last, and she had hoped to concentrate on inner European issues, such as the refugee crisis and rebuilding an economy devastated by the coronavirus, the Israeli official said.

Annexation will make it harder for Germany to focus on these issues, which is why Maas will do everything he can to convince his Israeli interlocutors to abandon the planned annexation, he posited.

President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday discussed “issues on the regional agenda” with his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who likely gave him a preview of what Maas was set to say in Jerusalem.

Maas will get plenty of opportunity to publicly elaborate on Berlin’s position vis-a-vis annexation, as he will participate in a rare press conference at the Foreign Ministry after his meeting with Ashkenazi.

The soft-spoken German minister will be polite and diplomatic in his public appearances but his message will likely be unequivocal: We’re your friends, and we will remain your friends. But annexation would deeply trouble us and cast a dark shadow over our relationship.

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