Germany, Israel plan joint meeting

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visits Berlin’s Jewish Museum on Feb. 11, 2008 on the first day of his three-day stay in Germany.<br />
  (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visits Berlin’s Jewish Museum on Feb. 11, 2008 on the first day of his three-day stay in Germany.
(Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

BERLIN (JTA) – Germany and Israel may agree that Iran’s development of nuclear weapons would be dangerous, but meetings this week in Berlin highlighted the significant differences between the leaders of the two countries on how to stop the Islamic Republic from getting there.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel supports sanctions and diplomacy, while Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says all options – including the use of force – are open.

“It is very important to use diplomatic means,” Olmert said, but Israel would consider using other options if diplomacy fails.

Iran is likely to be a central issue at an unprecedented bilateral Cabinet meeting between ministers of the two countries scheduled for March 17 in Jerusalem.

Despite the differences over Iran, the joint Cabinet meeting underscores the strong links between Germany and Israel. Merkel says she wants to make the meeting an annual tradition.

Among the German officials who will accompany Merkel on next month’s trip to Israel is Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a vociferous opponent of the use of force against Iran.

Aside from Iran, Middle East peacemaking and German-Israel ties, all of which Olmert and Merkel discussed this week in Berlin, the March meeting will address youth exchange programs and scientific cooperation.

Gerd Weisskirchen, the foreign policy speaker of the Social Democratic Party parliamentary faction and one of several legislators who met with Olmert during his three-day visit to Berlin, said the March meeting will be more than just a superficial display marking Israel’s 60th birthday.

The joint meeting is “the beginning of a real new development, making the German-Israeli relationship much deeper than before,” he said.

Deidre Berger, the managing director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, said the decision to hold a joint Cabinet meeting is “extremely positive.”

“It helps make more public the unique relationship that Israel and Germany have,” Berger told JTA. It “shows the importance to which Germany, one of the leading countries in the European Union, accords this relationship.

“It will help strengthen Israel’s position with other E.U. countries. And I think it can help close the gap between the good relations at an official level and the sometimes strained perceptions in the general public about that relationship.”

Weisskirchen said Germans, even if they don’t endorse force, must understand Israel’s position on its use against Iran, whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has threatened to destroy the Jewish state.

“This is the state that would be wiped out by Ahmadinejad,” he said.

A 2007 survey by the Bertelsmann Foundation found that 80 percent of Israelis believe there are situations in which the use of force is necessary, while 58 percent of Germans disagreed. The survey found that 62 percent of Germans polled believe Iran poses an existential threat to Israel.

Stephan Vopel, a senior expert on German-Israeli relations for the Bertelsmann Foundation, said the Israel-Germany relationship no longer is informed only by a sense of guilt and responsibility about the Holocaust.

The past “shapes our political outlook in both countries,” said Vopel, who coordinates the foundation’s German-Israeli young leadership exchanges and annual German-Jewish dialogue, but “one has to be free of the past in a certain way.”

“On the Israeli side, you have to look at the positive aspects of the past” and not only at victimhood, Vopel said. “On the German side, you have to see that pacifism is not the major lesson of the past. You can see through history that sometimes you do have to use military force to combat a bigger evil.”

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