policy divide

Berlin condemns Trump’s Jerusalem decision

Trump Jerusalem Recognition
Experts see the situation heating up. Source: AP

Berlin Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal believes President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was long overdue. “From a Jewish perspective, Jerusalem has been the capital of the holy land for 3,000 years. This didn’t just happen yesterday,” he said in an interview. Nor does he think the move should be an obstacle for peace: “Generally, I think the fact that the US has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is good and I would be happy if other countries did so as well,” he said.

Such comments from Jewish leaders certainly hold weight in Germany, especially given its history. Yet Berlin doesn’t seem likely to follow suit in moving its own embassy to Jerusalem any time soon. German leaders made clear that they opposed the US move instead. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesperson tweeted that “the government does not support this stance because the status of Jerusalem would have to be negotiated as part of a two-state solution.” Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel condemned the move in stronger terms, calling the decision “pouring oil onto the fire.”

Israel claims the city as its “undivided” capital, while Palestinians see Eastern Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state. In 1967, Israel seized the eastern part, though this annexation is not recognized internationally. Conflict over the city’s status has repeatedly proven a major hurdle to a peaceful agreement. In a television interview with state broadcaster ARD, Mr. Gabriel noted that even at the best of times, the question of Jerusalem’s status had been treated as a special issue and should “ultimately be decided by Palestinians and Israelis.”

The relationship between Israel and Germany is “very special” and likely unchanged by the US move.

The fact that Berlin would come out publicly against Mr. Trump’s decision was not a given. Germany’s foreign policy – closely aligned with that of the EU – calls for an independent, democratic Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel. Both Germany and the EU say this can only work if it is achieved through negotiations. At the same time, due to its history, Germany also has a special responsibility for Israel’s security. Political leaders, including Ms. Merkel, have often underlined their commitment to supporting and recognizing Israel.

That puts Germany in a bind, caught between its loyalty to Israel’s security, given the Holocaust and deaths of millions, and its commitment to a two-state solution in the Middle East. Over the short term, Mr. Trump’s move has increased these tensions between the two countries, said Peter Lintl of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. But he noted that the relationship between Israel and Germany is “very special” and likely unchanged by the US move.

The same cannot be said for Germany’s already-strained relationship with the United States, a key US ally and trading partner. Kristina Kausch of the German Marshall Fund noted that the US and Europe have already been drifting apart in key Middle Eastern policy areas, including the Iran nuclear deal.  Beyond foreign policy, there have been recurrent concerns that Germany’s trading partnerships and business interests in the US could be threatened by the president’s “America first” priorities. His repeated criticism of Germany’s trade surplus has caused ripples of worry through key industries.

Merkel trifft Netanjahu
This relationship should remain strong, despite the new tensions over Jerusalem. Source: DPA

Given the laundry-list of concerns already on the table, Berlin is likely to refrain from directly pressing the United States on the Jerusalem question, according to Josef Braml of the German Council on Foreign Relations. “There are even more important issues, such as the economy, and the Iranian sanctions,” Mr. Braml told Handelsblatt Global. “Of course, we’ve heard lawmakers express some consternation, rhetorically, but they wouldn’t risk their economic relationship with the US. They will save their influence for more critical moments such as when business relationships are in danger.”

Nor is Europe expected to play a greater role in the region directly. While the US may have weakened its position as an international broker in the Middle East peace process, disqualifying itself in the view of Palestinians, both experts said that Europe cannot and does not want to replace the US in its role. “Israel and Palestine will look to Europe – but Europe cannot take this on,” Mr. Lintl said. “Only the US can give those security guarantees.”

So how far will Germany and Europe go to express their displeasure? After Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, Mr. Gabriel said Germany and the EU must hold their critical position. He resolved to discuss the issue with European leaders in the coming days. Most of them have echoed Germany’s concerns, with French President Emmanuel Macron calling the decision “regrettable” and Federica Mogherini, the European commissioner for foreign affairs, saying she feared for the peace process and that Jerusalem’s status should be resolved through negotiations. Later this month, foreign policy leaders will meet for a summit in Brussels and focus on Jerusalem, Mr. Gabriel said.

Foreign policy expert Ms. Kausch said that she sees a new and uncertain stage in the relationship between Europe and the US. After the United States said it would pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, EU countries had crossed a threshold, sensing that they didn’t need to toe the line on key positions in the Middle East. “It’s good Europeans take their own stance on key issues – but this is bad for the European role,” she said. “It would be good if there was a shared trans-Atlantic line on this issue.”

While the US and Europe squabble, the situation in the Middle East is already deteriorating, Ms. Kausch warned, adding that this latest statement will only encourage fanatics and extremists in the region. It also comes at a time of crisis in neighboring states, like Lebanon and Syria. That’s a worry for some Jewish organizations in Germany, too. Josef Schuster, president of the Jewish Council in Germany, said that while he welcomes the confirmation of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, this move, uncoordinated internationally, “could trigger unwelcome consequences given the instability in the Middle East.”

Allison Williams is deputy editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and based in Berlin. To contact the author: williams@handelsblatt.com

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