OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed “grave concern” over Israel’s continued settlement building on occupied Palestinian territory Tuesday, as she and her Cabinet visited Jerusalem to meet their counterparts.
“We are looking at the settlements issue with grave concern,” Merkel said at a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“We hope it will not stand in the way of a two-state solution and that we can overcome it.”
Since Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were launched after intense U.S. efforts last year, Israel has advanced plans for more than 11,700 new settler homes, infuriating the Palestinians and drawing condemnation from the international community.
Settlement building is illegal under international law.
Merkel, who did not plan to meet with Palestinian officials on the visit, reiterated that Germany adhered to the EU position on settlements, which under guidelines published in July prohibits financial dealings with settlement-based entities.
She stressed, however, that Germany “does not support boycotting” Israel proper.
European companies have begun to divest from Israeli organizations with ties to West Bank settlements, prompting accusations of hypocrisy from Israeli leaders.
“Those who call for boycotting Israel are not calling for the boycott of any other country,” the Israeli premier said.
“They blame only the Jewish state, and singling out Israel – the one true democracy in the whole Middle East – is neither moral, or correct or productive, because actually these boycotts push back peace.”
The progress in talks between world powers and Iran over its controversial nuclear program was also high on the agenda during the German leader’s visit.
Israel, which views Iran’s nuclear drive as its greatest threat, has been highly critical of diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute by easing sanctions in return for Tehran freezing or scaling back its nuclear activities.
Merkel admitted there was “disagreement” with Netanyahu over holding talks with Tehran.
Germany, as well as the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Britain, France, the United States, Russia and China – reached an interim agreement with Iran in November and are now aiming for a comprehensive accord.
Western nations and Israel have long suspected Iran of seeking a nuclear weapons capability alongside its civilian program, charges denied by Tehran.
But Merkel said Germany views Iran as a potential threat not just to Israel, but also to European states.
“We see the threat not just as a threat for the state of Israel but as a general threat for Europe as well,” she said of a potential Iranian bomb, adding that Germany would pursue international talks with Tehran on its nuclear activities.
Netanyahu, whose country is widely believed to have the Middle East’s only atomic arsenal, acknowledged that world powers had “talked about the possibility of some enrichment” continuing in Iran as part of a final deal.
“I think it’s a mistake,” he said. “Every single leader I’ve talked to in the Middle East agrees with that position, whether they say so publicly or not. Why? Because if Iran really wants just civilian nuclear energy, then they don’t need any enrichment. They don’t need centrifuges.”
Asked whether she agreed, Merkel was circumspect.
“It is clear that there is a difference of opinion here with regard to these negotiations and whether they ought to take place. We have set out on the path of low enrichment, but enrichment does take place and I believe that we can succeed,” the German leader said.
“The question is whether we will be able to achieve a result that is better than the present state of affairs. We have decided it is better to participate in the negotiations because we believe that to be better than the status quo.”