“Keeping the channels of discussion open” (Interview)

02.02.2012 - Interview

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle talks to the Deutschlandfunk radio station about the outcome of his trip to the Middle East. The interview was broadcast on 2 February 2012.


Jordan, Egypt, Israel and Palestine – Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has visited them all in the last few days. It seems there is hope of the revolution on the banks of the Nile bearing fruit, in spite of the win for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s parliamentary elections. But what about Israel, and what about Palestine? With both sides apparently more entrenched than ever, almost nobody is talking about the peace process any more. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki moon has called on the two sides to stop their mutual provocations.

Mr Westerwelle, Ban Ki-moon made his position clear. Did you?

Yes. We spoke to both sides, urging the Palestinians on the one hand to allow talks to continue and, on the other, pressing the Israeli side to come up with a package which will help make those continued talks happen. So we are working on both sides, which is helped by the fact that we enjoy excellent relations with each of them – and of course, Germany’s voice is listened to in Israel, because the Israelis know that their country’s security is one of our fundamental principles as a state.

Mr Westerwelle, let’s talk about Israel. Do you still see light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to Benjamin Netanyahu and his policies?

I think it would be premature to comment on that conclusively in this current phase. As you yourself heard and confirmed in the report just now, things are in flux. I had a very open discussion – it was very cordial, but also very open – with the Prime Minister. We are convinced that no one-sided measures should be undertaken. It is also common knowledge that Germany unequivocally opposes the settlement policy. That is the European Union stance as well. Conversely, it goes without saying that Israel’s security interests also need to be considered at all times. Let’s not forget that Hamas have still not renounced violence.

You say that you had an open discussion. How open can a German foreign minister be in Israel?

It depends how you do it, and of course how well you know and get on with one another. Because we know each other well and have been engaging in discussion for some time now, and provided our conversations are normal and civil, we can afford to make ourselves understood. After all, it is absolutely clear that we enjoy very close ties of friendship with Israel. There is far more to it than responsibility for the past; we are bound together in a partnership of values with the democratic state of Israel.

We also have an interest in seeing the two-state solution brought closer to realization. That is, we want there to be two states in the region, two states which respect one another and coexist peacefully, and so it is important to us to support the establishment of a Palestinian state with actions, not just words. As a matter of fact, I brought concrete projects with me to that end. We have set up a steering committee linking the Palestinian Authority and the German Government, the second meeting of which has already been scheduled. In this committee, we discuss in very practical terms what we can do, in areas from policy planning to development cooperation to partnership on education, to ensure that the separate, sovereign Palestinian state established as a result of negotiated settlement is viable and able to support itself.

Mr Westerwelle, in recent months, we have often heard tough criticism from Washington being levelled at Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy. What is your impression after this last meeting with him – do you expect him to finally listen to advice?

I believe that what I said was understood.

By Benjamin Netanyahu?

And by everyone else in the discussion. But the secret of success when it comes to such discussions in part lies in not broadcasting the details of the conversation on the radio. The fact that the discussion is confidential is, after all, part of what enables the participants to trust one another and thereby create the right atmosphere for things to get moving. No one can say whether that will happen. Either way, it is vital to try and influence both sides, and we all know – your report said the same – how important it is to keep the channels of discussion open. These talks in Amman, which came about in part thanks to the initiative of the King of Jordan, have stalled at the moment but must be carried on. We can’t have the idea that we are talking here about the resolution and final outcome of negotiations for the whole Middle East peace process. Right now, the important thing is simply to carry on with negotiations. The talks mentioned in the Quartet Statement to the UN General Assembly last September, and the Roadmap, need to continue to be implemented. What worries me is that, if the talks are broken off completely, if they come to a standstill …

As so often!

Yes, exactly! If the talks reach a state of complete inertia, it will take disproportionately more energy to get them moving again. Even talks which progress falteringly or slowly are better than no talks at all.

So do you understand why the Israeli Government is still building settlements?

As you know, the EU’s and Germany’s position on settlement policy is clear. We recognize the 1967 borders – with agreed swaps, as people often forget to add – and our negotiations reflect that.

And yet Israel carries on. Is this just a negotiating chip that Benjamin Netanyahu absolutely wants to keep hold of?

No. We have to understand that there is a lot of concern in Israel too. As President Peres put it to me yesterday, Israel sees itself as an island surrounded by stormy seas. And looking at the situation around Israel, it’s hardly surprising that there is a lot of concern within the country. We mustn’t forget that it is after all a small and very vulnerable country, and it is essential that we are aware of Israel’s sensitivity. The country has a great, understandable and justified interest in its own security. We also mustn’t forget the rocket attacks and the fact it was only a few months ago that Gilad Shalit got back to his family. And then there is the hate speech from Hamas to match.

My advice is not to allow ourselves to be partisan; instead, the important thing now is really to keep the negotiation process going. This visit is intended as a contribution to that, as are the talks being held by Ban Ki moon. I spoke to Quartet Representative Tony Blair yesterday (from Europe) to liaise and synchronize plans with him, and in a moment I will be continuing discussions with Mr Barak – and that is how we contribute what we can. We don’t want to overestimate what we can do either; we know that the Middle East conflict has been ongoing for decades. Nonetheless, we do intend to do what we can to help ensure that progress is made this year, and that our budding and blossoming hopes are not short-lived.

That was Federal Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle speaking live to Deutschlandfunk from Tel Aviv. Mr Westerwelle, thank you very much for joining us, and good-bye.

Thank you very much. Till next time.

This interview was conducted by Dirk Müller and reproduced by kind permission of Deutschlandfunk.

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