You are heading in a new visit to the Middle East. Can you tell us what you hope to achieve from this current visit to Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Syria? What are the main issues you are going to discuss with the leaders of these countries?
My visit to the region is happening at just the right time. With the first newly launched indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians for some time we now have a positive dynamism in the process again. Yet the situation on the ground remains tense and fragile. That is why we also need a constructive regional backdrop to keep hold of the chance of urgently needed direct negotiations. I want to work for this in my talks in the region. After all, what we are ultimately talking about is a comprehensive peace solution which also takes in other spheres of conflict in the Middle East, that is also the unresolved conflicts between Israel and Syria and between Israel and Lebanon.
Germany is expected to inaugurate this week the new German-Palestinian Steering Committee with Prime Minister Fayyad. What will this committee do, and does Germany hope of playing any role in mediating between the Israelis and the Palestinians?
The German-Palestinian Steering Committee is a first. No other country has a forum with the Palestinian Authority in which the ministers of the two Cabinets consult on further institution-building in the Palestinian territories. If there is to be peace in the Middle East, there is no alternative to a just two-state solution. So this can happen we need, alongside the political process, to work on practical institution-building. We are doing what we can here to support the Palestinian Authority under Prime Minister Fayyad’s leadership. With the joint Steering Committee, we want to deepen and better dovetail our long-standing commitment in the Palestinian territories.
As a follow up, do you concede that the Americans are now the only main player in this mediation (through the proximity talks)?
We in the international community want to provide the best possible support for the peace efforts on the ground. Traditionally the United States plays a major role as a member of the Middle East Quartet. Thanks to George Mitchell’s work, we have now managed to get the Israelis and Palestinians to talk to one another again – albeit only through the United States initially. No-one can afford a continued standstill in the Middle East. The parties to the conflict should therefore use the opportunity presented by the indirect peace talks.
Some critics may say that you are bias in favour of Israel because of the guilt you still feel towards the Jews from the Nazi era. What can you say to prove those critics wrong?
The close partnership with Israel is a cornerstone of German foreign policy. But that doesn’t exclude us supporting the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. After all, we believe the only long-term solution for the Middle East conflict lies in a two-state solution and the recognition of Israel by its Arab neighbours.
Also as a follow up, those critics may point towards your failure to stop Israel from building illegal settlements on occupied territories, especially Jerusalem. Why can’t you put enough pressure on Israel to stop these illegal buildings?
Our position on the settlement question is just as clear as that of the EU and the entire international community. The roadmap provides for a freeze on settlements – this applies to both the West Bank and East Jerusalem. A few months ago the Israeli Government agreed on a settlement moratorium. This was an important first step which opened the way for indirect peace talks. But this still means we need further progress on the settlement issue.
The Quartet set some conditions on Hamas after it won the elections in 2006. Do you see any relevance to sticking to these conditions, which Hamas consistently refused to accept?
The criteria of the Middle East Quartet remain unchanged: We demand the cessation of violence and the recognition of Israel’s right to exist and of the results to date in the peace process.That remains our yardstick when it comes to Hamas.
With Senator Mitchell taking the lead role in the negotiations between the Israeli and the Palestinians, do you still see a role for the Quartet’s Special Envoy Tony Blair?
During the German Presidency of the EU, the Middle East Quartet was successfully drawn in more to efforts to reach a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. The Quartet is and remains a central forum for the peace process in which the EU, the United States, Russia and the United Nations can coordinate. The most recent Quartet statement issued at its meeting in Moscow proves it works well.
What is your position on the blockade against Gaza?
Those wanting peace need to tangibly improve the daily lives of the people. This is particularly true of the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip which is increasingly precarious. That is why it is particularly important to improve people’s access to the basic goods they need for their everyday lives. We finally need constructive solutions here.
On Egypt: The Egyptian government seems to be very sensitive to criticism on its record of reform and democracy, especially after the recent renewal of the emergency law. What is your position on this issue, and on the need to open up the political space for the opposition to be able to put forward independent candidates for the next presidential elections?
Let me say here that Egypt is a major anchor of stability in the entire Middle East region. We appreciate its constructive commitment, for example on the Middle East peace process. Of course we encourage Egypt to continue its internal reform efforts.
On Lebanon: what kind of help are you willing to give the Lebanese government, including assistance in the military and intelligence fields (training, equipment etc)? What is your view on the role played by Hizbullah, which the EU considers its military wing a terrorist organization, although the party is part of the government of prime minister Saad Harriri.
For some time now, Germany has been helping Lebanon secure its land and maritime borders. At the same time we are supporting the country’s reconstruction following the war in the summer of 2006 and are helping improve the living conditions in the Palestinian refugee camps. As far as our view on Hizbullah is concerned, the German Government has no political contacts with it.
On Syria: Much was said about Syria’s ‘negative’ role in the region – allowing Jihadists to cross over to Iraq, supporting Palestinian terrorist organizations based in Damascus, etc. Has Syria changed its policies, or has it been you who have changed yours after it failed to force Syria to change its policies?
In recent years, Syria has fortunately moved forward. This is reflected for example in the ongoing normalization of relations with Lebanon. We worked to bring this about together with our partners in the EU. More constructive steps are needed. At the same time, dialogue with Damascus is crucial if we want to move closer to solving the Middle East conflict.
Also on Syria: there have been a lot of calls on Syria to halt its alliance with Iran. Do you see any problems with such a special relationship between Syria and Iran?
Syria has to decide itself on the intensity of its relations with Iran. What we want to do is bolster the peace-seeking forces in the region and encourage everyone in the region, including Syria, to play a constructive role.
What role can Jordan play in helping to solve the Arab – Israeli issue?
Jordan plays a key role in the Middle East peace process. More than half the Jordanian population is of Palestinian origin. Each and every setback in Israeli-Palestinian relations has a direct impact on Jordanian domestic policy. This is not an easy situation but Jordan takes a constructive approach by constantly working for a balancing-out of interests with its neighbours including Israel. That is another reason why Amman is an important interlocutor for us.