“Critical days lie ahead”

14.05.2021 - Interview

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas talks to the “Saarbrücker Zeitung”.

You just had a long conversation with the Pope. You must have also discussed the situation in the Middle East. Does he have an idea of how the situation could be defused?

My impression is that the Pope is also tormented by the situation in the Middle East. Like us, he is trying to utilise all options and communication channels to ensure that this horrific bloodshed comes to an end. The Pope’s great desire, which we share, is for the situation to be eased – and for the Middle East conflict finally to be resolved once and for all.

What can Germany do now during this crisis?

At the moment, everyone with any influence is making every effort to de‑escalate the situation – the United States especially. I have been talking to my counterparts in Egypt and Jordan, for example, and am likewise in close contact with my Israeli colleague. We must also keep the situation from worsening once again now that Ramadan is over. Critical days lie ahead.

Do you consider the Israelis’ course of action proportionate?

When more than 1000 rockets are launched at Israeli cities, that is an exceptional dimension indeed.
And so far, Hamas has not shown any willingness to stop firing them. Under such conditions, Israel must be able to defend itself.

Who do you hold responsible for the escalation: both sides? Or is a differentiation necessary here?

In an already tense state of affairs, Hamas escalated the situation deliberately and severely with the massive rocket attacks – with dire consequences for Israelis and Palestinians. However, the underlying problem of course remains the unresolved Middle East conflict. In our view, it can only be ended in the framework of a two-state solution. Yet this solution has grown more remote over the past few years. Hence, small provocations – be it on the Temple Mount or in Gaza – are enough to spark violence. That will not stop until there is a political solution. And much too little effort has been made in recent years towards achieving such a political solution.

Instead, there has been a policy of Israeli treaty-making facilitated by the Trump Administration in the US. Has that made the prospects of a solution more difficult?

No, the improvement in Israel’s relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other Arab countries was absolutely a step in the right direction. That process must continue. But the Middle East conflict can in its core only be resolved between Israelis and Palestinians.

And for years, the two parties have not sat at the same table to negotiate with each other directly. Such direct talks must resume.

But has Israel’s rapprochement with Arab countries not deepened the sense of hopelessness, of being forgotten, among Palestinians – and reinforced a sense of invincibility, a certain hubris, on the Israeli side?

From everything I know, Israel’s aspiration was that, through rapprochement with the other Arab countries, it would address the Palestinians as well and, as the next step, would improve its relations with them. To date, nothing of the sort is evident. Unfortunately, there are also many unresolved problems on the Palestinian side. The recent postponement of the elections in the Palestinian territories is just one example.

Anyone who has passed through checkpoints between Bethlehem and Jerusalem or seen the wall around the West Bank can imagine how that constriction stokes the resentment of young Palestinians. To what extent do you believe Israel is responsible for the state of affairs?

Particularly because the state of affairs is so difficult, one of our primary goals has always been trust-building measures between Israelis and Palestinians. There are many practical opportunities for this on either side of the fence – for example with health care, including the supply of vaccines.

There have already been attacks on synagogues in Germany. How can we prevent the conflict from escalating further on the streets of Germany as well?

By clearly voicing our solidarity with Israel and not being silent when we see Israeli flags being burned or threatening gestures made outside synagogues. It is bad enough that in twenty-first-century Germany, Jewish institutions require police protection. The state needs to make clear that violence on our streets over the conflict in the Middle East is not acceptable and it must use all means at its disposal to counter that. We must remain vigilant. We may still be facing very critical days ahead.


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