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Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the debate in the German Bundestag on "60 years of Israel"

29.05.2008 - Speech

Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the debate in the German Bundestag on "60 years of Israel"

Mr President,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Sixty years ago the citizens of the newly-founded State of Israel held in their hands their first passports. There was something particular about those passports. They bore the words "Valid for all countries except Germany". That was 60 years ago. Two-and-a-half months ago we nine members of the Federal Cabinet stood with our Israeli counterparts in Yad Vashem for a commemoration ceremony. As I have already said here in this chamber: that was one of the most moving moments of my political life.

Sixty years separate the passport restriction I mentioned and the German-Israeli intergovernmental consultations two-and-a-half months ago; 60 years of work by Israeli and German political representatives, but also 60 years of work by citizens. It was academics and trade unionists who forged the first links between Germany and Israel at civil-society level.

Today, 43 years after the establishment of diplomatic relations, we enjoy with Israel relations more full and diverse than with virtually any other country in the world. Nowadays Israel counts Germany among its closest allies and friends, a development which must beyond any doubt fill us with gratitude.

Nevertheless – as many people have pointed out – we will probably have to accept it when Amos Oz writes:

"No normalization. Normal relations between Germany and Israel are impossible and inappropriate."

The Shoah, the murder of millions, the immense suffering which Germans inflicted on Germans and other Europeans of the Jewish faith, is part of our history. The daily remembrance and the daily confrontation with the Shoah, with racism, yes even with anti-Semitism in our country, is therefore part of our present, and will and must remain part of our future. That is why our relationship with Israel will always be a unique one.

But what does this mean today, 60 years after the founding of the State of Israel? To my mind, it imposes three core tasks for German foreign policy: the first – as everyone has said – is to demonstrate commitment to the existence and security of the State of Israel. This must remain a fixed element of German foreign policy. And this does in fact also mean that we must counter again and again the statements of the Iranian President. His denial of the Holocaust is just as intolerable as the questioning of Israel's right to exist. There must be clear signals to that effect.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am convinced that our support for Israel must include something else as well. Let me quote Amos Oz again:

"What Israel needs most of all is emotional reassurance. For we feel we're some kind of outcasts, accursed and hated. Such reassurance would cost not a penny, all it takes is empathy. That doesn't require anyone to agree with Israel's policies. But given the difficult situation Israel finds itself in today, such emotional support from Europe would be a real help for the doves and moderate forces here."

These remarks by Amos Oz made me personally think of the sometimes rather trite way in which, from the comfort of our armchairs here in Europe, we deliver clever commentaries on the Middle East peace process and garnish our frustration at the lack of progress with clever advice for Israel.

Certainly one does not have to agree with every Israeli policy, and, where there is dissent, it must be discussed openly. But my experience is that criticism is accepted more readily, or is perhaps only accepted at all, if it comes from a friend who has and who shows a true understanding and empathy for the predicament – many have rightly spoken of a danger – facing the other party.

The second task for German foreign policy is to further intensify our bilateral relations and to develop them in a more future-oriented way. We opened a new chapter in the intergovernmental consultations two-and-a-half months ago. New fields of cooperation were agreed and will be worked upon. Above all, the Israeli-German Future Forum will be launched this year. It will offer the young generation prospects for cooperation in business, culture and science.

The third major task deriving from the special nature of the relationship between Germany and Israel is our commitment to peace in the Middle East. The responsibility for the past – as many of the speakers this morning have said – is indeed, and must remain, a driving force behind Germany's commitment in the Middle East.

We know that implementing the two-state solution will demand difficult compromises from all partners. We also know – or at least we ought to know – that we cannot replace the necessary resolve and farsightedness from Europe.

But we can help with work on the framework conditions. As indeed we have done – by reviving the Middle East Quartet, by advocating the involvement of the Arab states, and by setting in motion last year an EU Action Strategy for the Middle East which improves the framework conditions I mentioned.

This classical diplomacy is part of it, but in my opinion it is in itself not enough to change the situation in the Middle East. Anyone who talks to the people in Ramallah, Jericho, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv will encounter two things: both the longing for peace and the sober awareness of failed attempts over the past decades can be felt everywhere now.

In my view, this means that we must feel ourselves even more strongly called upon to work on concrete measures and to give the people in the region the feeling that the road to peace is a worthwhile one. We are doing this with many measures which I will not list in detail now.

One of them, though, is the major international conference for security in Palestine, which will take place here in Berlin on 24 June. Our aim at the conference is to create the conditions which will enable the international community to make its contribution to ensuring that Palestine can itself assume responsibility for its own security.

Why am I saying this? I am saying this because, in all this, we are guided by the knowledge that increased security in Palestine will ultimately also mean increased security for Israel.

Counsellor, I am pleased that the Israeli Government takes the same view, that Israel took a positive reaction to the convening of this conference.

On Saturday I will be setting off for what is now my eighth trip to the Middle East, visiting Beirut, Jerusalem and Ramallah. If I may put it this way, the skies over the Middle East have brightened a little. I am happy that the crisis in Lebanon could be resolved thanks to the mediation of the Arab League.

Perhaps the election of the new Lebanese President will put in place the conditions for progress on the reconstruction of functioning government institutions in Lebanon. I am also pleased that indirect talks are being held between Israel and Syria.

When he is in Berlin tomorrow, the Turkish Foreign Minister will doubtless inform us about the position in these talks. This follows the conviction that there will probably be no comprehensive, sustainable solutions for peace in the Middle East without the involvement of difficult partners, in particular without the involvement of Syria. I have always understood the signals from the region to mean that one must work towards confidence-building with both sides.

We have one wish above all for Israel and its people on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State: peace; the peace which the people deserve; the peace which requires us to play our part. Responsibility for the past creates an obligation for the future.

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