Visiting German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Wednesday restated his country’s opposition to unilateral Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, but stopped short of announcing possible punitive measures Berlin could take if Jerusalem goes ahead with its controversial plan.
Maas made a one-day trip to the region, meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
“I reiterated, and will continue to do that in my conversations today, the German position and explained our serious and honest worries, as a very special friend of Israel, about the possible consequences of such a move,” Maas said at press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem at the beginning of the day.
“We share these views with our European partners, and we are of the view that an annexation would not be compatible with international law, and we therefore continue to stand for an agreed and negotiated two-state solution,” he added. “And to get closer to the goal of a negotiated agreement it needs new creative impulses to revive talks.”
Maas said Germany stands ready to help Israelis and Palestinians explore different ways to resume peace negotiations, stressing that he had come to the Middle East to listen to the sides and not to pronounce threats.
“I have not set up any price tags at all,” he said in response to a reporter’s question about possible sanctions, adding that the European Union member states have agreed to “seek dialogue” with all sides.
“Now is the time for diplomacy and for dialogue,” he said, adding that while he made the European position clear to his Israeli interlocutor, he does not believe in policymaking that is based on threats.
“The result that we are looking for is peace in the region, that’s what’s important for the people here in the region. And I don’t want to [discuss possible sanctions] as long as no decisions have been made.”
Maas, a Social Democrat known as a staunch supporter of Israel, is the first senior foreign dignitary to visit Israel since the latter’s new government was formed last month. His visit comes mere weeks before Germany takes over the rotating presidencies of both the United Nations Security Council and the European Council and is thus likely to play a critical role in moderating the international community’s response to possible Israeli annexation.
Meanwhile, Ashkenazi, at the same press conference, said Israel wants to implement the US administration’s peace plan. He indicated that annexation plans were not a done deal and that much work needed to be done before the government decided if and how to proceed with such a move.
Ashkenazi welcomed Maas to Jerusalem as a “close friend of Israel,” assuring him that he was closely listening to the German position and vowing to “take it into consideration.
“There are currently significant regional opportunities, most notably President [Donald] Trump’s peace initiative. It is an important milestone for the region, and it represents a significant opportunity,” Ashkenazi said in his statement.
“The plan will be pursued responsibly, in full coordination with the United States, while maintaining Israel’s peace agreements and strategic interests. We intend to do it in a dialogue with our neighbors. Israel wants peace and security.”
— גבי אשכנזי – Gabi Ashkenazi (@Gabi_Ashkenazi) June 10, 2020
Both Maas and Ashkenazi entered the room wearing white face masks with small German and Israeli flags sewn into their upper left corner.
During a question and answer session, Ashkenazi said that were “no maps” yet of the West Bank territory that would be annexed. The US peace plan included “conceptual maps” of the areas that Israel would apply sovereignty to, but they need to be translated into actionable maps. Once the technical mapping work has been completed, they will be confirmed and voted upon by the government.
“There is no decision currently,” he said.
Asked by The Times of Israel whether Palestinians in areas Israel would annex would be able to obtain Israeli citizenship, Ashkenazi said the Trump plan defines their status.
“We’re discussing this in our deliberations and it would not be proper to talk here… No decisions have been made, and it’s a bit premature to talk about this now. Once there is a decision we can elaborate on it a bit more.”
It is unclear exactly how many Palestinians currently reside on territory that Israel would annex, as no precise maps have been released yet. Estimates range from several thousand to more than 100,000. Netanyahu said in a newspaper interview last month that these Palestinians “will remain Palestinian subjects” living in “enclaves” and would not receive Israeli citizenship.
At the beginning of the Maas-Ashkenazi press conference, an agreement was signed in which Germany committed to continue supporting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem with 1 million euros ($1.14 million) per year for the next decade.
While in Israel, Maas also met with Netanyahu at his Jerusalem office and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu’s office said Maas asked the premier about Israel’s plans concerning the Trump proposal in light of Germany’s membership in the UN Security Council and assumption of the European Council’s rotating presidency next month.
Netanyahu said any agreement with the Palestinians must recognize Israel’s “vital interests,” such as maintaining complete security control west of the Jordan River, according to a statement.
“Likewise, Prime Minister Netanyahu said any realistic plan must recognize the reality of Israeli settlement on the ground and not foster an illusion of uprooting people from their homes,” the statement said.
A statement from Gantz’s office said he told Maas the Trump plan was a “historic opportunity,” while stressing it should be advanced responsibly and in “dialogue” with various regional actors.
The two also discussed numerous regional issues, among them Iran’s nuclear program.
“We cherish the special relationship with Germany and will do everything possible to strengthen cooperation and dialogue with it as an important leader in the European Union and true friend of Israel. Germany has a significant role in advancing peace and security in the region,” Gantz was quoted saying.
Later on Wednesday, Maas was set to head to Amman for a meeting with his Jordanian counterpart, Ayman Sadafi. He was also scheduled to speak to senior Palestinian leaders via video conference, rather than in person, because of Israeli COVID-19 restrictions preventing him from reaching Ramallah.