Middle East

Merkel cautions ally Israel on Jewish settlements

Netanyahu and Merkel agreed to disagree on the question of Israeli plans to build more settlements.

BERLIN/RAMALLAH, Palestine: German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Thursday to avoid “one-sided moves,” amid uproar over plans to build 3,000 settler homes in a highly sensitive area of the West Bank.

She framed her message as friendly advice to an increasingly isolated Netanyahu, whose stance has drawn international condemnation, including from European states and Israel’s closest ally the United States.

Germany, usually supportive of the Jewish state, has said the plan – announced by Israel a day after the U.N. General Assembly’s de facto recognition of Palestinian statehood – risks extinguishing hopes for a two-state solution.

At a joint news conference with Netanyahu in Berlin, Merkel was more muted in her criticism than her government has recently been, although she acknowledged they had discussed the housing plan over dinner Wednesday.

“Of course we spoke about it ... we agreed to disagree,” she said. “Israel decides for itself – it is a sovereign state. All we can do as a partner is give our opinion and our evaluation. The aim is clear ... it is for a two-state solution.”

Palestinians say the new settlements on land they seek for their state would divide the West Bank and cut them off from Jerusalem, their would-be capital.

“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,” Merkel added.

Netanyahu told Merkel he had no doubt whatsoever of her commitment to the security and well-being of the Jewish state and criticized what he called a misconception in Europe that settlement-building was preventing peace.

“I don’t think we have lost Europe,” he said. “There is obviously a difference of view in Europe on the issue of settlements ... it is not the root cause of our conflict.

“The most important thing is that peace will not be decided in the U.N. in New York and not in Europe. It can only be advanced in Jerusalem and Ramallah,” he said.

Netanyahu has rejected calls by the U.S. and Europe to reverse course over settlements, which the international community consider illegal.

Netanyahu told German newspaper Die Welt he was disappointed that Berlin had abstained in the U.N. vote rather than siding with Israel, saying earlier that the Palestinian status “violated” existing agreements.

However, Israeli President Shimon Peres told AFP that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is still a serious partner for peace despite the successful U.N. bid.

“I tried to influence him not to do it right now. I told him: Look it’s not the proper time to do it,” Peres said. “But I still believe he’s a serious partner and a serious man and I have respect for him.”

Abbas, he said, had shown “courage” by seeking the status upgrade at the United Nations in the face of strong opposition from Israel and the United States, which say a Palestinian state can emerge only out of bilateral talks.

“He has shown courage not only by going to the United Nations, which I think – from a point of view of time – was the wrong time, but he stood up and said ‘I am against terror, I am for peace,’” the Israeli president said.

“He felt he was abandoned by us, by America, by Europe by the rest of the world and he wanted to do something.”

Although he questioned the timing of the U.N. move, Peres stopped short of criticizing it, saying only that it had created “a crisis of confidence.”

In light of Israel’s growing isolation on the world stage following the diplomatic backlash against settlement construction, Peres called for a fresh intervention by the Middle East Quartet, which comprises diplomats from the United States, United Nations, Russia and the European Union.

“We have to ask ourselves what to do now. I think the Quartet should return as a negotiating body,” he said, indicating the group had the “legitimacy” to mediate.

“They started to do a good job, but they were interrupted for different reasons ... now I think they have to return.

But Peres said negotiations would only be possible after next month’s general election.

“We have to wait until the elections and then we shall have the next government and then will be the time to renew the negotiations,” he said.

Separately Thursday, Jordan’s King Abdullah II visited the West Bank in a show of support for Palestine after Israel’s settlements decision.

The monarch arrived by military helicopter from Jordan, landing at the presidential headquarters where he was greeted by Abbas.

Abdullah, whose country is at peace with Israel and an ally of the U.S, made no immediate comment after arriving in Ramallah.

But his Foreign Minister Nasser Joudeh told reporters: “The world has rejected settlements as unconstructive and illegal, and there have been condemnations from numerous countries to this decision.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 07, 2012, on page 9.




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