Ambassador to Germany Shimon Stein is pleased that Germany has agreed to consider Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's request that it send peace-keeping troops to Lebanon, but says the country is divided on the issue. "Based on a reading of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, it is clear that this peace-keeping force must be a strong force, not merely a UNIFIL force with no teeth and no will," Stein told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview during a brief vacation at home. "And it is obvious that stable, predictable countries, such as France, Italy and Germany, must be part of this force."
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Germany is offering to patrol Lebanon's coast rather than send ground troops. Yet Israel asked Germany to provide fighting troops, and Germany refused. Isn't that a historical paradox, Stein was asked.
"In a way, it is," he responded. "Prime Minister Olmert recognizes that this is a different Germany, which has proven, more than many other countries, that it has internalized the lessons of the Holocaust. But the Germans are unwilling to put themselves in a position where German armed soldiers might have to face, or even shoot, an Israeli soldier. They are accepting the burden of their history, even if we, at least in this instance, are willing to overlook it."
Stein noted that the final size of the force had not been determined and that, since Lebanon had not yet asked Germany to participate in the force, the decision had not been finalized. Furthermore, since the German army is a national army, any decision regarding deployment of troops must be approved by the Bundestag.
He revealed that Germany had also offered to aid the Lebanese government in guarding airports and to train customs officials along the Syrian-Lebanese border, as well as the warships backed by surveillance aircraft to prevent weapons being smuggled to Hizbullah gunmen after their war with Israel.
While the decision is likely to pass, according to Stein, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union is divided on the issue, while the main opposition parties - the Liberal FPD and the hard-left PDS, and to a lesser extent, the Greens - are against it. Polls say that a majority of the German public is against it, too.
"As important as the decision regarding German troops is for Israel, it is much more important for the Germans," Stein said. "After all, let's keep some proportions here: the entire force will not succeed or fail because of the German forces. But for the Germans, this is the most delicate and controversial foreign policy move in recent memory."
It has been over a decade since Germany's post-war constitution was changed to allow the use of armed force in international disputes. In that time they have taken part in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Sudan and DR Congo.
But Stein made a distinction: These past assignments have been primarily "peace-keeping" missions. The mission in Lebanon would be a "peace-enforcing" mission. For the first time, German troops would be taking part in a mission with a high probability of casualties.
"The German public is simply not willing for German soldiers to be killed," Stein explains. "It is unwilling for them to become targets for terrorists."
Unlike the United States, Germany, like all of Europe, except for the British in Iraq, is in a post-heroic period. They are not willing to see their soldiers killed in any effort that is not directly related to their own defense. Europeans do not see themselves, and do not want to see themselves, as responsible for making the world safe for democracy. Furthermore, in Germany and especially in the east, there is a significant pacifist component.
"The United States views itself as a global player. The Europeans have viewed themselves as a regional power, with regional interests. True, this is changing. In retrospect, the first strategic change occurred in the 1990s, when the German's adopted a neighborhood policy in the Balkans and made a decision regarding involvement in Kosovo. Looking back, it is clear that the Germans have 'de-ideologized' this issue."
Furthermore, he said, the Germans are accepting their responsibility for the region. They have recognized that the United States, bogged down in Iraq, can no longer be the sole player, and they have recognized that there is a clear interdependency between the Middle East and Europe.
The Germans and the Europeans, Stein explained, view this decision as a test case, a test of the extent to which Europe can take a leadership role in the Middle East. "The Italian foreign minister has said very clearly that if they succeed in this mission, they will be able to take part in other international forces - in Gaza, for example."
Stein acknowledged that Ernst Uhrlau, who heads Germany's foreign intelligence service, arrived in Beirut on Thursday. Uhrlau negotiated the 2004 prisoner exchange involving Hizbullah and Lebanon in which Israel traded 423 Lebanese and others in Israeli jails for Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three dead IDF soldiers. But he categorically dismissed media speculation that Uhrlau was negotiating the release of Israeli soldiers taken captive this summer.
Asked whether Israel requested German intervention, Stein said firmly: "Not to my knowledge," adding: "[Resolution] 1701 explicitly relates to the return of the prisoners, so there is no need for this type of intervention."
Meanwhile, Merkel said in an interview released Saturday that the new UN force in Lebanon would have a more robust mandate than that of its previous operation.
She said the UN rules of engagement for the multinational force would be stronger than those of UNIFIL.
"From what we know, one can talk about a robust, appropriate mandate," she told ARD television's Bericht aus Berlin program in an interview to be aired Sunday.
"Because there is no sense, like with the previous UNIFIL operation, simply to observe that, for example, the weapons embargo is being broken," she said. "Instead one must also now be able to act."
When asked whether Germany's navy could be asked to fire upon ships trying to run weapons to Hizbullah, however, she said: "There is a long chain of possibilities to bring such ships to a stop," without directly answering.
Merkel's cabinet is expected to decide in the coming week exactly how many German ships and personnel will be sent to Lebanon.
German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung was asked in a newspaper interview about reports that the German force would number about 1,200.
"This is still being agreed, particularly with the Lebanese government. But I expect that the number will probably be greater," Jung was quoted as saying in the Neue Presse daily on Thursday.
AP contributed to this report.