“Content-light nonsense” and a “disgrace” is how Jeremy Cliffe, Berlin bureau chief for The Economist
, described the debate between Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz on Sunday.
Merkel, in office for 12 years, is running for another term as chancellor against Schulz, who was president of the European Parliament from 2012 to 2017. She is ahead in the polls, and it doesn’t seem the estimated 16 million Germans who tuned in to watch will be swayed against her.
Merkel has consistently supported a special relationship with Israel, while Schulz, who also supports Israel, is often remembered for a controversial 2014 speech to the Knesset.
In a debate that lasted over an hour, Merkel, chancellor candidate for the Christian Democratic Union, and Schulz, of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), discussed terrorist threats, Trump, diesel cars, Turkey’s desire to join the EU and integrating refugees. A little over two years since Merkel welcomed around a million migrants to Germany, this issue formed a large portion of the debate.
However, Schulz and Merkel basically agree on most policies, with only subtle nuances between them on how to implement them, such as how strong Germany should be in challenging Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
While most German media did not pick up on it, halfway through the debate Schulz made a short comment about Palestinians and Israel. According to a report from the American Jewish Committee Berlin’s Ramer Institute, he said: “Yes, there are, for example, young Palestinian men who have been brought up, who have been educated, with a deep-rooted antisemitism.”
Schulz argued that they need to understand that Germany supports Israel.
Several people on social media objected to the absence of more discussion of Israeli-Palestinian issues and also to the fact that both candidates support Israel.
Jill Mohr tweeted, “I wonder why no one has protested when Schulz said we protect Israel, why not protect Palestine?” Jules el-Khatib said, “It would be nice if the national interest would include not only Israel but finally recognize Palestine.” A Twitter account labeled “Anti- Deutsch Aktion Berlin,” a left-leaning activist group, criticized Schulz, saying that he “waffles” between saying Germany should protect Israel and “his party comrades lay down wreaths for anti-Zionist murderers.”
Schulz’s comments about the importance of protecting Israel are not new. Former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg wrote in February 2014 in Haaretz
that Schulz once told him: “For me, the new Germany exists only in order to ensure the existence of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”
In his speech in 2014 to the Knesset, Schulz sparked controversy when he relayed a question Palestinians had posed to him about Israel restricting water use in the West Bank, claiming Palestinians received only 17 liters of water a day, compared to Israelis who received 70 liters. Some members of Knesset walked out during his speech.
When he received a prize in October 2015, the Judische Allgemeine
reported that he said the issue of peace in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians was the “mother of all conflicts” and that he hoped it would be resolved so “both peoples live together in two states or in a confederation of states.”
The confederation comment raised eyebrows, as if he was proposing a new concept for peace.
Merkel has demonstrated steady support for Israel over her dozen years in power. In a 2015 interview with Yediot Aharonot
, she said that at the start of her first term she initiated intergovernmental talks between Germany and Israel.
“We are doing this out of an awareness of Germany’s constant responsibility for the fracturing of civilization in the time of the Holocaust and an awareness for the shared values and interests,” she said. Germany and Israel share values such as “freedom, democracy and human dignity,” she continued.
Merkel has consistently said Germany should not be neutral when it comes to Israel and supporting its security.
Most commentary on the election and the debate has portrayed it as lackluster and dull. The BBC noted that “those hoping for rhetorical bloody noses were disappointed.
As were viewers hoping Martin Schulz, who is unlikely to take Mrs. Merkel’s crown, might at least taste victory on national TV.”