BERLIN, Sept. 3 (JTA) — German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has become a conscience of the U.N. World Conference Against Racism, recalling Germany’s past crimes in an attempt to steer the meeting off its anti-Israel track.
Responding to comments by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who related Israel’s treatment of Palestinians today to the Nazi genocide against the Jews, Fischer said Germany “cannot accept the trivialization, relativization or even denial of the Holocaust, and it will resolutely counter any such attempts.”
Fischer, who has been trying to broker a meeting between Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, called the Holocaust “the 20th-century’s most terrible crime” and said its memory “will have a lasting influence on German politics.”
Israel’s ambassador to Germany, Shimon Stein, expressed appreciation for Fischer’s efforts and frustration at the direction the Durban, South Africa, conference had taken. Fischer “has done a lot in order to promote the notion of understanding between Israel and its neighbors,” Stein told JTA.
With regard to the conference, Stein said, Fischer “has tried to do his best.” But, he said, “the conference has been hijacked by the Arabs. It has nothing to do with the noble purpose it was set for, and we have to regret that.”
After some 3,000 nongovernmental organizations signed a nonbinding declaration Sunday condemning Israel as a “racist, apartheid state” and accusing Israel of being guilty of war crimes, Fischer warned that the conference was in danger of failure.
Responding to another theme that has dominated the conference, Fischer apologized on Saturday for Germany’s past involvement in slavery. He said that although it was virtually impossible to right the wrongs of the past, an apology might restore some of the self-esteem that was robbed from the slaves.
“I therefore want to do this here and now on behalf of the Federal Republic of Germany,” Fischer said, adding that Europe has a historical responsibility — because of the excesses of past colonialism — to help developing nations overcome poverty and improve their economies.
Fischer’s sense of historical responsibility was clearly expressed during the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999. Going against his Green Party’s long-standing pacifism, Fischer justified sending German troops into Kosovo by saying that there should “never be another Auschwitz” and condemning the ethnic cleansing policies of former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.
Germany’s relationship with Israel also is built on a recognition of guilt and responsibility, leading Germany to become Israel’s greatest economic partner aside from the United States. Germany also is considered Israel’s closest ally in the European Union, though it joins the European Union in funding the Palestinian Authority.
Observers say Germany’s traditional support for Israel stands on wobbly ground today, under pressure from what many see as the pro-Palestinian European Union. But Fischer has made a point of combining support with prodding toward peace.
In Durban, Fischer continued this practice, meeting privately with Arafat and Italian Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero to discuss the possibility of talks in Italy next week between Arafat and Peres.
Fischer told reporters that recommendations of an international panel led by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell must be the foundation for any such talks.