x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Germany condemns Israel's settlement building plan

Berlin's criticism is particularly significant given that Germany has traditionally sided with Israel because of its historical obligation resulting from the Holocaust.

BERLIN // Israel's closest ally in Europe yesterday joined the chorus of criticism over its decision to build 3,000 settler homes in the West Bank when the chancellor, Angela Merkel, told Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, she disagreed with him and that the move wouldn't help to forge peace.

After a joint meeting of the Israeli and German cabinets in Berlin, Mrs Merkel said the two leaders had "agreed that we disagree" about the settlement plan Israel announced last Friday in an angry reaction to the United Nations general assembly's de facto recognition of Palestinian statehood the day before.

"We in Germany believe the work on a two-state solution must be continued ... we must keep trying to come to negotiations and one-sided moves should be avoided," Mrs Merkel said. "The foundations of German-Israeli relations are unshakeable and they can cope with differences of opinion. The question is whether this is a helpful or not a helpful step towards the goal of a two-state solution."

Before the meeting began with a dinner on Wednesday night, Mr Netanyahu had said that he was "disappointed" with Germany's decision to abstain in the UN vote rather than oppose the motion.

Berlin's abstention amounts to the clearest signal yet that it has lost confidence in Mr Netanyahu's commitment to peace talks with the Palestinians. It is particularly significant given that Germany has traditionally sided with Israel because of its historical obligation resulting from the Holocaust.

German officials were reported to be irritated by the absence of the Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, from the government consultations, the fourth such round of talks instituted to deepen ties between the two countries.

Mr Lieberman had excused himself, saying he didn't feel well and had to hold political talks in Israel. That was seen in Berlin as a snub.

Mr Netanyahu has given no indication that the international condemnation will dissuade him from proceeding with the construction of homes for Jewish settlers on land near Jerusalem that Palestinians want for a future state.

He said the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, had given up a common approach towards peace by seeking the UN vote, and that international recognition would probably harden the Palestinian position and obstruct peace talks in the future.

"The root of the problem isn't the question of settlements but the opposition to the state of Israel in any form," Mr Netanyahu said. "This peace won't be reached in the UN in New York or in Europe. It will be reached between Jerusalem and Ramallah, and the only way to do that is direct negotiations."

Settlement projects on land Israel captured in the 1967 war are considered illegal by most world powers and routinely draw condemnation from them.

One of the areas Mr Netanyahu said would be subject to preliminary planning work is the so-called "E-1" zone east of Jerusalem, a prospect that has caused particular alarm because it could divide the West Bank and make the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state almost impossible.

A senior politician from Mrs Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats party said building on E-1 could bury a lasting peace settlement and end up turning Jews into a minority in Israel.

"The planned E-1 settlement is not a settlement like any other. It is a connection between Jerusalem and the settlement Maale Adumim. If this connection is completed, East Jerusalem would be de facto separated from the West Bank and the latter would effectively be divided. Both would lead to a two-state solution becoming impossible," said Ruprecht Polenz, the head of the foreign affairs committee of the Bundestag lower house.

"If Israel sticks to the plan, they would create a binational state stretching from the Mediterranean to Jordan," said Mr Polenz. "The Jews would in the foreseeable future only form a minority in the state for demographic reasons. This would bury the dream of a democratic Jewish state. It would be a tragedy."

The two-state solution "dies a little more with each house built in the settlement construction", Mr Polenz added.

Mr Abbas on Wednesday declared the housing project an uncrossable "red line".

In recent years, Germany's stance on Israel has been divided between official declarations of support for the security of the Jewish state, and public opposition to its policies.

Recent opinion polls have shown that a majority of Germans want their country to be neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and don't believe they have a historic responsibility for Israel anymore.

But the German chancellor reiterated on Thursday that she rejected that stance.

"I made clear in the meeting that the security of Israel is part of Germany's reason of state," Mrs Merkel said.