Israel congratulates Merkel on election victory

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Israel on Monday night warmly welcomed German Chancellor Angela Merkel's reelection victory on Sunday, even as some officials expressed reservations regarding Guido Westerwelle, the man expected to be her next foreign minister. "Israel congratulates Angela Merkel on her victory in the general elections," Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Monday night in a statement. "During her first tenure she showed deep friendship to Israel, impressive sensitivity to the past, and devotion to the special relationship between the two people and two states." Lieberman said Israeli-German relations went beyond coalition politics and were based on a remembrance of the tragic history shared by the two countries. It is precisely this historical memory, however, that has some in Jerusalem concerned about Westerwelle, the head of the Free Democrats Party (FDP), who it seems is most likely to become the next foreign minister, replacing Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who lost the elections to Merkel. While German voters reelected conservative Merkel to a second term on Sunday, they voted to replace the "grand coalition" of Social Democrats (SPD) and conservatives with a new coalition of pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and Merkel's Christian Democratic Party (CDU). The conservatives won 33.8 percent of the vote, a loss of 1.4% from the 2005 election. Guido Westerwelle, the head of the Free Democrats, led his pro-business party to a 14.5% result, the best voter turnout in the history of the party. The 47-year-old Westerwelle was born after World War II, and government sources in Jerusalem said that as a member of a new generation of Germans, born after the Holocaust, he did not have the same reflexive sympathy for Israel that has characterized other German leaders from the across the political spectrum. Israeli officials aren't the only ones concerned. Dr. Matthias Küntzel, a German political scientist, was distrustful of Westerwelle as foreign minister because he said "the Möllemann scandal is too fresh." In 2002, a top FDP politician, Jürgen Möllemann, distributed flyers attacking former prime minister Ariel Sharon and Michel Friedmann, a prominent German Jew, who at the time was vice president of the Central Council of Jews. Many Germans and German Jews considered Möllemann's election tactics to be anti-Semitic. Möllemann blamed Friedman's behavior for bringing about anti-Semitism, and he, according to his critics, stoked anti-Israeli sentiments among voters to reach the party's goal of 18% percent. Westerwelle failed to immediately distance himself from Möllemann and only after rising public pressure did he express regret about Möllemann's strident anti-Israel attacks. Moreover, Israeli officials said that the FDP has been problematic regarding Iran, expressing opposition to sanctions as a tool to get Teheran to ditch its nuclear program. The FDP's connection to Iran has a history, with former FDP Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who serves as a mentor figure for Westerwelle, being the first major European foreign minister to usher in trade and political relations with Iran in 1984. Küntzel, a leading expert on German-Iranian economic relations, told The Jerusalem Post that the Free Democrats are, with respect to the Iran question, "only disappointing" and "burdened" with a bad foreign policy approach to Teheran. "I hope that the tradition of Genscher and Klaus Kinkel will not be continued" regarding Iran, he said. Kinkel was foreign minister between 1992-1998. Genscher ran the Foreign Ministry between 1974-1982 and after a short pause, returned to office between 1982-1992, when he advocated the notion of "critical dialogue" with the Iranian regime and reinvigorated Germany's strong commercial ties to Teheran after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Germany is Iran's largest European trade partner and critics believe the pro-business FDP will favor commercial ties over the West's (and Israel's) security interests. Küntzel, the author of the book, Germans and Iran: The Past and Present of a Fateful Relationship, set to hit the bookstores in early October, criticized the strategy of FDP foreign policy spokesman Wolfgang Gerhardt who has over the years rejected robust sanctions against Iran and urged enhanced negotiations. The Post revealed that Elke Hoff, a Free Democratic Party MP, serves on the board of directors of the German Near and Middle East Association (NUMOV), an organization which energetically supports increased trade with the Iranian regime and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Beyond Iran, Israeli officials also pointed out that in 2006, Westerwelle opposed the participation of German intelligence-gathering ships and naval personnel in preventing a rearming of Hizbullah as part of UN Security Council resolution 1701 that put an end to the Second Lebanon War. Yet there are some within the FDP who are worried about Israel's security. Küntzel highlighted the pro-Israel views of the FDP's general-secretary, Dirk Niebel, who is a member of the German-Israeli parliamentary group and worked as a volunteer at Kibbutz Kfar Giladi, near Kiryat Shmona, during the early 1980s. Niebel told the Post in an interview last year that he supports a ban of Hizbullah and its 900 active members in Germany. He also favors a coordinated international sanctions approach for turning the economic screws on Iran due to its illegal nuclear enrichment program. Stephan J. Kramer, general-secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told the Post that he "would have liked to have seen a continuation of the grand coalition because it is better way to smooth out problems" among diverse groups in Germany. He said the Central Council of Jews has strong ties to "all of the democratic parties" and does not see a "change between the Federal government and the Jewish community." Kramer added that it was "very good" no neo-Nazi party entered the Bundestag, and that on the regional level, in the Eastern German state of Brandenburg, voters ejected the German People's Party (DVU), a neo-Nazi party, from parliament. He noted that it was a "serious signal that voter turnout decreased from 77% to 71%." Voter participation was at its lowest level since the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949. The Social Democrats suffered a massive electoral defeat, plummeting to 23% of the vote from 34.2% percent in 2005. The outgoing SPD Foreign Minister and chancellor candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, "There is no getting around it. This is a bitter day for Germany's Social Democrats." Political commentators view the SPD as drifting into political oblivion after the party experienced its worst election result since the collapse of the Weimar Republic government in 1933. The Left Party captured a number of disaffected SPD voters, and scored its best national election showing, with 11.9 % percent, an increase of 3.2% percent from four years ago. Frustrated West German trade unionists and SPD members, who believed the Social Democrats had abandoned its core social justice policies, switched to the Left Party, an amalgam of former East German communists and West German leftists. The Left Party has raised alarms among Israeli diplomats because of its hard-core anti-Zionist positions. During Operation Cast Lead in January, Israeli Ambassador to Germany Yoram Ben-Zeev complained to Gregor Gysi, a top Left Party leader, about a letter from the party's spokesmen declaring Israel's offensive as "inhumane" and "not legally justified by means of self-defense." Wolfgang Gehrcke, a Left Party MP and co-author of the letter, appeared at a pro-Hizbullah rally advocating the destruction of the Jewish state. Nine MPs were present at an anti-Israel demonstration during the Gaza war in which "death to Israel" was chanted and signs reading "Holocaust in Gaza" were displayed. The Green Party, whose chancellor candidate Jürgen Trittin has urged Israel to negotiate with both Hamas and Hizbullah, failed to reach its two key goals: Preventing an alliance between Chancellor Merkel and the Free Democrats, and becoming the third strongest party in the Bundestag. The party captured 10.7% of the vote, a 2.6% percent increase when compared to the 2005 election. The Greens were tangled up in an anti-Israel controversy as the German parties jump-started their campaigns in July. The Post first reported on Renate Künast, the parliamentary head of the Green Party and co-candidate for the national election, charging German pro-Israeli supporters, who oppose an Iranian nuclear weapons program, as working for the Mossad. She denied making the statement to the Post and in the German press. German critics of the Islamic Republic argue that the Green Party, particularly the party's Iran expert Bahman Nirumand, has watered down Iran's threats to "wipe Israel of the map," and, instead, has presented Israel as a the real threat to security in the region. Nasrin Amirsedghi, an intellectual and author who fled the Islamic Republic and lives in Germany, told the Post that Nirumand was a product of the so-called "68 generation, that hates America and Israel." Nirumand, she added, has remained stuck in the antiquated foreign policy views of the late 1960s German counter-cultural movement.•