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Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Steinmeier on the occasion of the official function of the German-Israeli Parliamentary Friendship Group, 12 November 2008

13.11.2008 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am looking forward very much to this function and to this evening, and especially to what it holds in store.

When Aliza Olmert reads to us from her novel "A Slice of Sea" this evening at the Foreign Office, it will become clear yet again that no ties of ours with any other country are as special as our ties with Israel. In her beautiful book, Aliza Olmert tells the story of a new beginning from the perspective of a small girl born in Germany, against the background of the irreversible pain and suffering of the past.

Murder and expulsion, a new beginning and rapprochement – Aliza Olmert movingly tells this as her family's story.

But it could also be symbolic of the relations between our states.

Israel is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its founding – an important date for us as well. The development of our relations can no more be taken for granted than the successful founding of the State of Israel itself. At the beginning of the last century, a national home was nothing more than the dream and the longing of a few Zionist pioneers. Not until the middle of the century – after the murder of millions of European Jews – did it become reality. Over the course of the past 60 years, Israel has repeatedly had to defend its existence. At the same time, it has worked to help lay the political foundations for overcoming confrontation and reducing hostility. With the Camp David peace accords of 1979 and the Oslo accords of 1993 as well as the agreements building on them! Unfortunately, however, we have not reached our goal – not yet!

Before I come back to this, I would like to say again:

For us as Germans, "60 years of Israel" is a special date. 60 years after the founding of the State of Israel, 63 years after the end of the Shoah, Germany's responsibility for the State of Israel remains unchanged. The terrible crime of the Shoah is part of our German history. The remembrance of this, the ongoing confrontation with it – and also with racism and anti-Semitism today – is the responsibility imposed by the genocide. This will and must be true in the future as well.

60 years of Israel – this also means an impressive number of events held in Germany and by Germans in Israel over the course of this year.

Ambassador Ben-Zeev recently said to me that the anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel was probably observed in a greater variety of ways in Germany than anywhere else in the world.

In addition, a dense network of interpersonal relations links the citizens of both countries. Town twinning arrangements, school and youth exchanges, cooperation in the field of science, the extraordinarily rich cultural scene in both countries – the events with which German civil society congratulates Israel on its 60th birthday underscore these close ties.

I am convinced that this work – and to me this also means remembrance work – is now more essential than ever.

Why do I emphasize this?

In our endeavours we can build less and less on the testimony of the survivors, on their voices and eyewitness accounts. And just how impressive, how moving and emotionally churning these are is something I experienced again just last Sunday when Charlotte Knobloch delivered her moving speech in the Rykestrasse Synagogue and when Menahem Pressler – who as a child survived the Kristallnacht pogrom in Dresden – spoke to us after his stirring concert in the Tempelhof Airport terminal.

We must keep the memories from disappearing behind the veil of history. We must therefore find new forms of remembrance work. To me, this means that we must find new ways to draw our societies – and above all our young generations – closer to each other and enable them to learn, work and live together.

This, however, presupposes that we know more about each other: I have learned more from the talks with Boris Saidman, Assaf Gavron and David Grossman in the context of our reading series. Aliza Olmert, as I mentioned earlier, is our guest this evening, and Amos Oz will conclude the reading series at the end of the year.

I would like to mention another experience of mine: In the summer of this year, German and Israeli young people set sail together to retrace the escape route taken by Danish Jews across the Baltic Sea. I myself had the opportunity to accompany them on one leg. What I experienced that day – efforts to get to the bottom of prejudices, common lessons learned from history, and above all the will to work together to shape the future – all this not only left a deep impression on me but also boosted my confidence that we are on the right track.

These close ties and sense of responsibility impose three major ongoing tasks for German foreign policy:

  • Demonstration of Germany's commitment to the State of Israel in secure and recognized borders. We will counter all those who deny the Holocaust and question Israel's right to exist.
  • Second: the further shaping of our bilateral relations.
  • Third: our particularly strong and active commitment to peace in the Middle East, which derives from the special nature of the relationship between Germany and Israel.

These three major tasks will be difficult to master without the real prospect of a two-state solution. For I am convinced that lasting security for Israel requires long-term stabilization of the Middle East region. And this is inconceivable without a Palestinian state that lives in peace.

Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the crucial cornerstone of an urgently sought peace order in the region.

And without a two-state solution, such a peace order will not be possible. Of this I am convinced.

And: At the same time, the two-state solution is the key to preservation of the traditions and character of the Israeli state, in terms of both its democratic basic order and its cultural identity.

So how do things stand with the Palestinian state, the vision towards which we have been working for many years?

In view of domestic tensions on both the Israeli and the Palestinian side, in view of new regional challenges and well-known adversities, it would appear that we are still far away from a Palestinian state: There is the assumption of power by Hamas in the Gaza Strip; the Palestinian Territories are increasingly divided for all practical purposes. Barriers and checkpoints impede freedom of movement and economic activity. Growing Jewish settlements scattered across the territory of the West Bank and East Jerusalem complicate the search for peace. All this gives little cause for optimism, you might say.

Yes, but it is neither a reason to throw up our hands in resignation nor a reason to fail to acknowledge what has been achieved.

Let me mention four examples of progress:

  1. Since January 2008, Israelis and Palestinians have been negotiating again. It is they who must live together in the future, and it is they who must reach the necessary compromises.
    It is we who can support them in this process and improve the framework conditions for direct talks. In this spirit the EU, under the German Council Presidency, adopted an Action Strategy in 2007 in the run-up to the Annapolis Conference that set out the substance and political scope of the European contribution to support new progress. The Annapolis process – though still not concluded – has had a positive impact to this very day. It generated a momentum that had been missing ever since the days of the Oslo accords.
  2. Both sides – the Israeli and the Palestinian – are seriously determined to reach an agreement. And they can rely on the support of their people in this endeavour. A majority in both societies – Palestinians and Israelis – have shown they are ready for a peace settlement. And this includes painful compromises, without which an agreement will be impossible. Just think of Prime Minister Olmert's statements – perhaps considered late here, but no less courageous – concerning the compromises that will be necessary to regulate the status of Jerusalem!
  3. For the first time in a long time, the much-discussed two-state solution is the accepted basis for negotiation on all sides.
  4. In addition, for the first time the great majority of Arab states have expressed their firm determination to actively support a balance of interests between Israel and Palestine. It was right to involve the Arab states in the efforts of the Quartet under the German EU Presidency and thus compel them to shoulder responsibility. This culminated in the renewal of the Arab Peace Initiative in 2007 and in their participation in Annapolis and thus opened up the necessary regional dimension of the path to a two-state solution. The fact that the Arab Peace Initiative was ultimately accepted last week by the EU, neighbouring Arab states and Israel alike as one of the bases for a peaceful solution is an unprecedented development!

I am not going to speculate here as to when an agreement will be reached. The critical task now is to take appropriate steps to preserve the progress that has been achieved, safeguard the structurally intact Annapolis process and maintain the momentum. Progress achieved in the negotiations must be secured, irrespective of the persons involved!

We are all aware of the importance of the United States' engagement. During our encounter in Berlin, Barack Obama assured me that he will build on the results achieved thus far in the negotiations and move the peace process forward without delay. Germany and the EU will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the US in this endeavour.

The challenge is also to build economic, institutional and civil security structures in the Palestinian Territories. As the prerequisites for a functional Palestinian state. Our help has been and continues to be needed. I would like to mention three specific areas:

  • The people in Palestine must be able to see that peace pays dividends. Not in an abstract sense but in their daily lives. This is why we, together with Prime Minister Fayyad and with the support of German business and industry, launched the "Future for Palestine" initiative during his visit to Berlin at the beginning of the year. The first projects (kindergartens, schools, community centres, roads) have been up and running since this summer, and others are in the development stage.
  • Second: Lasting peace cannot develop within a society or between states without a functional police and judicial sector. This is why we convened the international "Berlin Conference in Support of Palestinian Civil Security and the Rule of Law" in June of this year. And increased security for the Palestinians also means increased security for Israel in the context of the Roadmap obligations. Just visit Jenin and you will sense what is changing for the better.
  • Third: The Paris Donors Conference held one year ago decisively improved the financial foundations of the Palestinian Authority.

As I already said at the beginning of my speech: The Middle East region is fraught with numerous other conflicts. Just think of Lebanon, just think of Iraq and the difficulties presenting themselves in regard to Syria and Iran. These conflicts are interrelated. All these topics and issues are increasingly interwoven in many respects.

For Israel, and for peace in the region, it will be of crucial importance that approaches to resolution link the local and regional dimensions.

On the day after the Annapolis Conference, I pointed out in the Bundestag that there will be no comprehensive peace arrangement in the Middle East without Syria. The developments in Lebanon and the Israeli-Syrian talks open up new scope for progress. Thus far there is still no cause for optimism. But once again, it has become clear that precisely in difficult situations and precisely with a difficult party like Syria it is essential to explore all the options for action. Since 2006, Israelis and Syrians have also repeatedly asked us to convey confidence-building signals. I hope that these first steps towards each other can soon lead into a process of direct talks.

America has voted; Israel will do the same soon.

In the past few days, in light of the results in the US, the words "change", "hope", and "a new beginning" have been heard everywhere – and for good reason. I hope that this sense of a new era dawning will spread to the Middle East and help inspire the courage to take bold and necessary steps.

The overwhelming majority of the people in the region share a yearning for peace. An equitable two-state solution that enables Israelis and Palestinians to live together peacefully in a stable regional environment can succeed.

As Yitzhak Rabin said in 1994 when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: There is only one radical means of sanctifying human lives: Peace.

We must all work together to attain this goal.

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