Foreign Minister Gabriel in an interview with the Funke Mediengruppe. Published on 29 April 2017
Did your escalation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanjahu really have to happen on the day after Holocaust Remembrance Day?
I didn’t escalate anything at all, rather the Israeli Prime Minister issued me an ultimatum: either I call off my talks with Israeli civil society organisations critical of the government, or he won’t meet me. That has nothing to do with Holocaust Remembrance Day, the day before. It’s just an excuse. I was most gratified that the Israeli President took an entirely different view of the matter. The meeting with him was very relaxed and very friendly and lasted much longer than originally planned. He made it clear that freedom of expression was part and parcel of each and every democracy, and was therefore also a characteristic of Israel. With respect to Holocaust Remembrance Day, he also said, by the way, that not all criticism of Israel was tantamount to anti-Semitism.
What personal connection do you have with Holocaust Remembrance Day?
I have a particular connection to this memorial day on account of my family history. In my family, there were both Holocaust deniers such as my father and Holocaust victims such as my grown-up daughter’s great-grandparents. My daughter and I found the documents that belonged to these victims in Yad Vashem a few years ago. As you can imagine, I am profoundly moved each time I go there. And there’s no other country on Earth that I have visited more often than Israel. It was also with this in mind that I acknowledged Germany’s historic responsibility for the Holocaust and the crimes of the Second World War on my visit to the country. I underscored Germany’s friendship with Israel and the Jews.
And yet you are critical of the Israeli Government’s policy.
The current regime isn’t Israel, even if it is keen to portray itself as being so. Standing up for Israel shouldn’t be synonymous with ignoring the rights of Palestinians, for example. Germany’s position with respect to Israel’s settlement activities is well known. We aren’t the only country to take this view. The fact that I meet critics of the Israeli Government to discuss this important topic is neither improper, nor is it unusual or surprising.
So you deliberately chose to hold this meeting with critics?
Meetings such as these are a staple of our programmes for visits, including in Europe. This has never been an issue in the past – probably because it’s such a matter of course. However, I regret the fact that the Israeli Prime Minister, whom I have met on many occasions, cancelled our meeting. I’m sure that our good and close relationship with Israel won’t change. We should be careful not to exaggerate such things.
Has the threat that Donald Trump poses also been exaggerated? He’s now been in office for precisely one hundred days. Have things been as bad as many feared?
Things appear to be turning out better, thank goodness. But they are by no means good, yet. The statements made by Trump and his entourage during the election campaign were, rightly, cause for a great deal of concern. There were fears that there could be a trade war and it appeared as if, on Russia, they wanted to ignore the conflict in eastern Ukraine while China was targeted by his supporters. Much of this has fallen by the wayside now, or has been watered down considerably. That doesn’t mean that all is now well, however. And it still seems strange to me how, for example, his daughter’s visit to Germany was lauded almost as if it were a society event, even though combining politics with family and business interests smacks of nepotism and would be unthinkable in this country.
Nevertheless, I have the impression that US President Trump has now got a better handle on the day-to-day business of government and listens to advisers who are more rational and realistic...
… than himself?
… than the advisers who had mainly his ear at the beginning. Now Donald Trump says: we have carried out a military attack against the Syrians owing to the use of poison gas, but don’t want things to escalate, but rather peace negotiations with the involvement of Russia. Now the Trump administration says that it doesn’t want regime change in North Korea, but rather security and has offered to hold talks. Perhaps we’ve even managed to stop the US President from imposing import duties on Germany.
We have returned to a situation in which relations between Germany and the US are about balancing interests. This is quite normal. Beforehand, I was certainly sometimes concerned that we could end up as adversaries.
I even have the impression that German-American relations are better than could be expected after the Chancellor’s visit to Washington. We’ll have to wait and see how things develop. We must travel to the US often, talk to each other a great deal and write lots of invitations...
Does that also apply to Trump’s daughter Ivanka? Was it a clever move on the part of the Chancellor to invite her to Berlin?
Certainly from the Federal Chancellor’s perspective. However, I must admit that I still find it strange when family relatives, who were never elected, suddenly start behaving like state guests and are revered almost as if they were members of a royal family. As a north German, I probably have a greater affinity with the restraint of the Hanseatic citizens and their republican ethos.
Germany has invited all of the heads of state and government to Hamburg in July. What do you have to say to critics of the G20 Summit?
They should listen to those who don’t hail from the old world of industrialised countries, but rather from Africa or Asia, for example. These countries say: you can’t continue to shape the world like after the Second World War as if you were alone. The world has changed. New players have joined the global stage. You have to cooperate with us. The old notion of the G7, that a few major industrial nations meet and the rest are considered to be developing countries, is outdated. You have to take care to make sure that the wishes of large parts of the world are not ignored. Where should the world meet if not in such formats?
And if not in a city like Hamburg...
To be honest, I can think of no better city than Hamburg.
Because Hamburg stands as a symbol of open-mindedness, tolerance and intelligence. If anyone understands the world, then its the Hanseatic citizens. For some people, globalisation is something new. It has been a fact of life here in Hamburg for centuries. Where else should Germany invite its guests? There is no other city that is more suitable for receiving guests from around the world – not to mention the fact that the heads of state and government will be coming with a few thousand members of staff in tow and we’ll be needing enough good hotels. Allow me to say this to the citizens of Hamburg and to all the critics: no one expects everyone to like the decisions that are reached. However, it’s worthwhile taking a moment to think about why the Chinese and others want to hold such meetings and why the Africans are pleased to be invited. Where should industrial nations and developing countries talk about measures against famines if not at the G20? And if there is one country that’s considered to be a fair mediator, then it’s Germany.
Should the citizens of Hamburg be worried about attacks?
No, many security precautions will be taken. During the G20, Hamburg will probably be the safest city in the world. I would like to encourage critics of globalisation to make their voices heard, but for their protests to remain peaceful.
Let’s talk about your new role. You’ve yet to complete one hundred days in office, and yet your popularity ratings have improved markedly. You’ve also said that this new job is more family-friendly than both of your former roles. It sounds like you’ve found your dream job.
It’s certainly not that family-friendly, but it doesn’t take up as much extra time as the three jobs that I held previously – Economic Affairs Minister, SPD Chairman and SPD coordinator in the Federal Government. You shouldn’t underestimate the time you spend working as SPD Chairman. With respect to popularity, it’s easy to explain this turnaround. If you are involved in day-to-day German politics, then people can be divided into supporters and opponents of the respective parties and popularity ratings are balanced. If you stay out of this and hold an office in which you represent Germany in the world, then people perceive you differently. The process is apparently quite quick.
That must be a good feeling for you. Your erstwhile unpopularity was apparently not so much a function of your personality as your role.
I never thought that this had anything to do with me personally anyway. As SPD Chairman, I had to fight almost every domestic political conflict tooth and nail, in the party and in society, for seven and half years. That wears you down. That’s why it was right for me to move aside for Martin Schulz as candidate for Chancellor.
Were you surprised by his runaway performance in the polls?
I was also surprised by how fast these things can happen. But I anticipated that we would get above 30 percent and that we would get much stronger still during the election campaign.
Do you think that the SPD will continue to increase its level of support? Others have already predicted the end of the Schulz hype.
I don’t foresee an end to this, and the election campaign is only just getting under way. We will continue to gain in support.
Was there a point in time when you were still party chairman that there was an O and not a U in the name of the candidate for Chancellor? Scholz instead of Schulz?
Olaf Scholz is one of the most intelligent people in German politics. There’s no denying that he is an immensely influential figure in federal politics.
However, it was always clear to you that if you weren’t chosen as a candidate for Chancellor, then it would be Schulz.
It was clear to me from a relatively early stage that I wouldn’t be the one. And there are two people that I held intensive discussions with about who it should be: Hannelore Kraft and Olaf Scholz. No one was more in the loop than they were. I wouldn’t have done this without or against them.
Scholz is currently locked in election campaigns in Schleswig-Holstein. The CDU and SPD are neck and neck in the polls. Who’s going to win?
If performance is any yardstick to go by, then Torsten Albig must be re-elected as Minister-President. They have a balanced budget, have stopped making cutbacks to schools and have created 80,000 new jobs. What else does he need to prove?
But he still needs to fight.
Because Schleswig-Holstein is traditionally CDU territory. But Torsten Albig is an excellent man for Schleswig-Holstein, which is why I’m quite optimistic that he’ll stay on as Minister-President.
A new President is being elected in France at around the same time as the elections in Schleswig-Holstein. Has Emmanuel Macron already made it?
It’s very important for him to make it because he’s the only one in the French election campaign to clearly stand up for Europe.
What signal does it send when a man who essentially doesn’t have the backing of a political party is able to get so far?
It shows how unhappy the French are with their current situation and with the party system in the Fifth Republic.
Something that, while it has often been prophesied, has not happened in Germany. How can we explain this?
France is much more of a class society than Germany. Our country is held together by the social market economy. And, at the end of the day, people turn on their TVs, read the “Hamburger Abendblatt” and see that, while perhaps not everything is rosy here, things are certainly much better than in most parts of the world. And that rings quite true.