German president hints at call for settlement freeze, but avoids criticizing Israel

In a personal and largely apolitical speech, Joachim Gauck — whose parents were Nazis — also recalls growing up in ‘anti-Zionist’ East Germany

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Joachim Gauck during his visit to Israel at the Holocaust Yad Vashem memorial museum in Jerusalem (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Joachim Gauck during his visit to Israel at the Holocaust Yad Vashem memorial museum in Jerusalem (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

German President Joachim Gauck called on Israel Tuesday to make a goodwill gesture in its settlement policy, but stopped short of making concrete recommendations.

In a very personal and largely apolitical speech at a state banquet hosted by President Shimon Peres, Gauck, 72, said that Germany will be on Israel’s side whenever others are questioning the Jewish state’s right to exist. Germany would “determinedly confront” those who threaten Israel, said Gauck, who is currently visiting Israel and the Palestinian Authority, two months after taking office.

“We support Israel when it seeks to create a lasting peace with its neighbors,” he said. “For such a peace it is necessary that Israel live side by side with an independent viable Palestinian state in security, with recognized borders. That requires that both sides move closer to each other. Only bold steps will make it possible overcome the current impasse in the peace process.”

Gauck, who doesn’t belong to any political party and whose position is largely ceremonial, said he is convinced the Palestinian leadership wants peace with Israel but needs to defend this position against radical forces. “Therefore my country, and the European Union, wish for Israel to make [a goodwill gesture] regarding the settlement policy.”

Most of Gauck’s speech, however, focused on the reconciliation between Germans and Jews after the Holocaust and the fruitful diplomatic and cultural relations between the two countries. Gauck, who grew up in Communist East Germany, spoke about his childhood in a country whose totalitarian leaders didn’t feel responsible for the Shoah, didn’t recognize Israel and whose official policy was one of “anti-Zionism.”

Joachim Gauck at the Holocaust Yad Vashem memorial museum in Jerusalem (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Joachim Gauck at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“As a young adult I was trying to get to an understanding of the Holocaust. I had to look for it myself,” said Gauck — whose parents were early members of Hitler’s Nazi party — adding that neither his family nor his society allowed him to dig deeper. “I was standing there, completely stunned, with a book about national socialism and didn’t find anybody to talk to about this, nor any understanding words for my shock. Still today, at 72, I depressingly remember this pain and this silence. They formed my relationship to Israel and to the Jewish people. I can’t help but be a friend of Israel.”

Earlier on Tuesday, Gauck took nearly 10 minutes to write a personal entry into the guestbook of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial after visiting the museum for about an hour. His entry ended with the sentence: “Stand by the country that here remembers those who weren’t allowed to live.”

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