Foreign Minister, Israel is turning 70. What does this anniversary mean to you?
This special anniversary is a vivid reminder of our fateful bond. For me, the terrible crimes committed by Germans against Jews do not only create an historic responsibility for our country. They also form a profound personal motivation for my entire political work. This will also guide me in my new role as Foreign Minister.
You recently paid your first official visit to Israel. How would you describe German-Israeli relations at the moment?
Germany and Israel are united by a vibrant friendship, as can be seen in the close exchange between our Governments and especially in the very wide-ranging contacts between many people in our countries. That does not mean we have to agree on everything. On the contrary, it is precisely because our relations are so profound and amicable that we can discuss all issues openly and in a spirit of trust, including when there are differences between us.
You have called for relations between the two countries to become deeper. What does that mean in concrete terms?
There are already very close ties between Germany and Israel – closer than with almost any other country. This positive momentum largely stems from young people. I see potential in academic exchange, business partnerships and endeavours to tackle global challenges. We want to further this potential even more in the coming years.
Will this anniversary be marked by special German-Israeli meetings at governmental level?
2018 provides many opportunities to mark the anniversary. These include the German-Israeli intergovernmental consultations, which will take place in Jerusalem this year. We want to consolidate the friendship between our countries to an even greater extent and to show people just how wide-ranging and diverse our ties are. To this end, we are working closely with the Israeli Embassy as regards supporting numerous events in Israel and Germany. The friendship between Germans and Israelis has been created by the many contacts, particularly in the arts, culture, academia and business. This friendship is not only found at political level. The profound ties in society, above all among young people, are especially important.
At the launch of the anniversary year in Berlin on 18 December 2018, Israeli Ambassador Issacharoff said that Israelis and Germans now share the same values and face similar challenges. Do you agree with him?
Yes, we face similar social issues. How should we deal with populism and division within society? How do we ensure cohesion? What risks and opportunities arise from the spread of digital technology? How do we maintain scope for open societies in view of hostility from inside and outside?
Mutual perception has changed significantly. Many Israelis have a largely positive image of Germany, while opinion polls show that the opposite does not hold true. What do you think is the reason behind this?
For many Germans, the image of Israel may be shaped by current reports on the conflict in the Middle East. At the same time, interest in Israel remains as strong as ever, as shown by the many German volunteers who, for example, take care of Holocaust survivors in Israel; the people who go to party at Tel Aviv Pride; the large number of pilgrims; the numerous German-Israeli town-twinning projects; and the queues of visitors for the Jerusalem exhibition at the Jewish Museum Berlin.
The State of Israel was created in line with the ideas of Zionism, that is, the national Jewish movement. In the meantime, Zionism has a negative image in some circles in Germany. What is your understanding of Zionism?
The idea of Zionism is largely reflected in the values of its pioneers who influence Israel to this day. These values include respect for a wide range of lifestyles, entrepreneurship, belief in the power of progress, and a lively democracy that remains united despite all differences and external threats.
Israel talks about having regained its independence 70 years ago and points out that the country’s Jewish history dates back 3500 years. Palestinian President Abbas talks about a colonial project that has nothing to do with Judaism. What is your view on that?
Israel is not a colonial project. I categorically reject that idea. Israelis have a right to a homeland and a state in secure borders, as do Palestinians. Any constructive solution for the future must involve both Israelis and Palestinians. Our view remains that we can only imagine a peaceful future for a Jewish and democratic Israel if there is a two-state solution.
Interview conducted by David Kauschke