Analysis: Israel's good wines - and policies

For most of Olmert's visit, Israel's conflicts with Hamas and Iran did not dominate the German media.

olmert merkel brill224.8 (photo credit: AP [file])
olmert merkel brill224.8
(photo credit: AP [file])
The topic of fine Israeli wine dominated a number of German media reports following Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's three-day visit to Berlin this week. Germany's strong support for the Iranian economy took a backseat. Chancellor Angela Merkel served Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Israeli wine during their three-hour dinner on Monday evening in the Meseberg Palace, the guest house of the German government, just north of Berlin. "A wine of outstanding quality," said Olmert at their joint press conference. The two large Berlin dailies, Berliner Zeitung and Der Tagesspiegel, devoted focused on Olmert's tribute to Israeli wine and to the hospitality of his host, Merkel. While Olmert, and his spokesman, Mark Regev, tossed bouquets at the "excellent" state of German-Israeli relations, the robust German economic relationship with Iran was hardly addressed in the German media. Israel's concerns over the Iranian nuclear threat did not generally make the headlines of German dailies. A review of the press finds such headlines as "Merkel supports Olmert on the way to a two-state solution" in the widely read on-line edition of Der Spiegel to "Merkel assures support to Olmert" in the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The liberal Frankfurter Rundschau wrote, "Attack on Hamas called for. Prime Minister under pressure from Israelis," while only the popular daily Die Welt splashed the headline, "Ehud Olmert warns about Iran's nuke program" - one of the few attempts to capture the seriousness of the Iranian threat. Israeli officials and some media critics often charge the European press in general, and the German press in particular, with depicting Israel as an "aggressor state." The leftist newspaper die tageszeitung, for example, at the time published an interview with the foreign policy spokesman of the Left Party, Norman Paech, who said Israel was waging "an illegal war of extermination against the militia and population in Lebanon." The phrase "war of extermination" is generally reserved in Germany for the Holocaust and the Nazi destruction of European Jewry, but comparisons of the Jewish state to Nazis are unexceptional in many German publications. In Berlin on Tuesday, Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, and Israeli Embassy officials made a round of visits to newspapers, hoping to debunk such one-dimensional reporting. The embassy, according to a spokeswoman from die tageszeitung, asked for an "informal exchange" with the paper's editor-in-chief, Basha Mika, who has used the formulation "merciless politics" to describe Israel. When asked if Mika maintained this view following her meeting with Regev and Israeli Embassy officials, her spokeswoman told The Jerusalem Post she stood by her words. During his talks in Berlin, Olmert went to great lengths to avoid a diplomatic dispute with Germany on Iran's nuclear program this week. While Merkel has affirmed Israel's right to employ force in Gaza against the Kassam rocket fire, she prefers a strategy of diplomacy and sanctions to pressure the Iranian regime to stop uranium enrichment. Olmert, who said Israel "cannot afford to ignore" Iran or to "make one mistake," said he appreciated Merkel's "deep perception of what we are facing" in Israel. But the gap between Olmert and Merkel was put into stark relief when Olmert did not dismiss the idea of a military strike against the theocracy in Teheran. "His definition is very interesting," said Olmert in a reference to US President George W. Bush's recent statement that "no option is ruled out" in seeking to thwart Iran's drive for nuclear arms. When Bush visited Israel last month, he said the US would defend Israel in the event of an Iranian attack. The notion of a solid alliance between Germany and Israel is seen in different terms in Germany. While meeting with Olmert, Merkel and her party colleague Parliament President Norbert Lammert stressed the "special relationship" between the countries. Lammert said this relationship "goes beyond good, reliable bilateral relations" and Israel's existence overrides German business interests. Yet Olmert's visit, and the pressing threat of a nuclear-armed Teheran, exposed the fault lines in German-Israel relations. The 800-pound gorilla in the room is Germany's solid economic relationship with the mullahs. Perhaps in an effort to blunt the damage caused by Germany's technological and material support for the Islamic Republic's economy, Olmert's visit coincided with the release of figures by Deputy Economics Minister Walter Otremba showing both a drop in German export credit guarantees supporting trade with Iran and a shrinkage of German exports to Iran. But journalist John Rosenthal, who has written extensively on Germany for the World Politics Review Web publication, questions the accuracy of the statistics provided by the German Federal Trade Agency asserting that the exports declined by 15 percent to roughly €3.5 billion for the first 10 months of 2007. The "figures are said to be based on statistical data running only through October. This makes the claim for a 15% percent drop in exports appear highly dubious... If the reported volume of German exports for the first 10 months of 2007 is extrapolated over a full year, the resulting figure (€4.2b.) would in fact represent an increase of Germany exports as compared to 2006," Rosenthal wrote. Iran is the hot-button issue of German foreign policy, and the open secret that Germany is supporting the Iranian economy is presenting a host of problems for Olmert. Just last week, German energy company RWE announced it had become the sixth partner in the Nabucco consortium. Nabucco is a pipeline project that will transfer gas from the Caspian region to Europe. Austrian oil giant OMV is the principal partner in Nabucco and has negotiated a €22b. deal with the Islamic Republic, the largest oil and gas deal in the history of the European Union. RWE spokeswoman Annett Urbaczka told the Post that RWE has "no current contracts or discussions with Iran." She added that because of the political situation it was preferable not to receive gas from Iran, and that she was not aware of the OMV deal with Iran. Whether German and European oil and energy deals, made at the expense of Israel's security, will feature in an German-Israeli cabinet meeting set for next month remains an open question.