Mrs. Merkel comes to the Mideast

The EU says it won't deal with Hamas. Germany must make sure it really doesn't.

olmert merkel 298 88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
olmert merkel 298 88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
The EU says it won't deal with Hamas. Germany must make sure it really doesn't. You'd have to figure, as I do, that God has an arch sense of humor to appreciate why the first foreign leader scheduled to visit Jerusalem and Ramallah in the wake of Hamas's electoral victory is German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
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Personally, I'd advise Merkel to eschew Ramallah altogether too many bad-tempered gunmen running around. But it is reassuring to know that, if she does go, she will limit herself to meeting PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his dwindling Fatah coterie. The chancellor is championing the European Union's stance, which precludes negotiating with the soon-to-be-installed Islamic Resistance Movement government. To break the boycott, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana says Hamas must recognize Israel's right to exist. French President Jacques Chirac pledges his country won't talk to Hamas until it issues a public renunciation of violence, recognizes Israel s right to live in peace, and commits itself to the agreements the PA has already signed. And Prime Minister Tony Blair's government tells Hamas it has to "decide between a path of democracy or a path of violence." SO, ON THE face of it, we have a principled Europe saying all the right things. But Germany, Britain and France the Europe that matters most will be faced with an enormous temptation to allow realpolitik to guide their relations with Hamas. Some in Europe will move to sanitize Hamas. A non-violent "political" wing will be discovered. And the Islamists will facilitate matters by keeping Abbas around as president and appointing someone like former PA finance minister Salam Fayyad as a figurehead premier. This would allow Europe to maintain support for the PA while nominally refusing to deal directly with Hamas. Europeans could tell themselves that Hamas s capture of 74 seats to Fatah's 45 was a yes for "Change and Reform," not suicide bombings. And they re getting the ammunition to do it. In Newsweek Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki argues that "Hamas received only 45 percent of the popular vote." It was a vote, claims Shikaki, against Fatah corruption. And anyway, exit polls showed "three-quarters of all Palestinians, including more than 60 percent of Hamas supporters," favoring a two-state solution. So there you have it: Why should a majority of Palestinians be penalized for the actions of a minority? You can just hear the Europeans who are the PA s biggest donors flagellating themselves: What about the PA's $69 million budget deficit this month alone; or its anticipated $600m. deficit for 2006? At last week's World Economic Forum in Davos, James Wolfensohn, the Quartet s special envoy, warned that "The Palestinians are basically bankrupt." And PA Minister of Economy Mazen Sinokrot, also at Davos, whined, "We have to pay salaries. Where will this money come from?" Sinokrot went on to note that the PA s 135,000 employees, including 58,000 gunmen, were the "breadwinners" for 30 percent of Palestinian families. "If these salaries do not come in, this is a message for violence." Hint, hint. Most of the PA's "revenues" something in the neighborhood of $1 billion go to what is euphemistically called salaries. And, anyway, the Europeans may persuade themselves, if we don t do it, the Hamas-led PA will turn to Iran and Saudi Arabia and then where would EU taxpayers be? Richer, I suppose. ENTER ANGELA Merkel, who arrived yesterday for a 24-hour visit. In a world where nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests, the German-Israel connection is unique. Germany's Overseas Development Minister, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, said Germany would carefully watch Hamas s behavior: "That is what will decide whether we continue our aid for the people in the Palestinian territories." But Merkel s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, seemed to want it both ways, telling Der Spiegel that Berlin "accepted" the outcome of the Palestinians' free elections, but adding that "Hamas must give up violence and recognize Israel's right to exist. Terrorism and democracy do not match." Then he hedged his bets. "Votes for Hamas were not votes against peace or for a religious or ideological radicalization, but for reforms in Palestine. We must respect this wish." The German press is also hedging. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung commented: "The way the West, Europeans and Americans respond to this development will be an important factor in determining how seriously Muslims take the demands for democratization...." And Andrea N sse, writing in yesterday's Tagesspiegel, opined that maybe "the pragmatic wing" of Hamas would become ascendant. The Die Linke Party, mostly former East German communists, advocated a softer approach, arguing that weakening the PA would only worsen the situation. Berlin-based journalist Daniel Dagan reminded me that Merkel arrived here on the heels of last Friday's official commemoration marking 61 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. There is no way around it: There will always be a special poignancy when a German leader visits Yad Vashem, which Merkel is scheduled to do this morning. For Dagan, a keen observer of German-Israel relations, Merkel's visit is a welcome signal after five years in which the previous chancellor demonstratively avoided coming to Jerusalem. A German friend, Anna Held, who works at Berlin's Goethe Institute, told me the reaction to the Islamist win among German opinion-makers was one of shock. "Everyone here opposes dealing with Hamas until it acknowledges Israel s right to exist," she said. "But opinions vary as to how to achieve that end." BERLIN DOES not usually like to take the lead in European foreign policy. It prefers to help shape an EU consensus. But there is no escaping the pivotal role Germany must now play. With Israel threatened by the prospect of an implacable, nuclear-armed Teheran on the one hand, and a uncompromising Islamist regime in Ramallah on the other, Israelis turn not to London or Paris but, paradoxically, to Berlin. Merkel became chancellor last November and, to everyone's surprise, has become remarkably popular. In her first speech to the Bundestag she proclaimed: "Dialogue with Islam carries great significance we have to learn to understand each other. We will do this in an open and honest way. We will not brush aside differences, but name them clearly." It was Merkel who first accused Iran of having crossed a "red line" in its genocidal talk against Israel. Today, in London the EU, Russia, the United Nations and the United States are scheduled to meet to coordinate European policy toward Hamas (a separate meeting, also today, grapples with Iran's nuclear program). What, realistically, can Israelis expect from Merkel? The answer: to help craft a European policy that exploits what is, among other things, an extraordinary opportunity. Merkel's no-nonsense leadership is especially needed to ensure that the EU's enunciated criteria for dealing with Hamas does not get watered down. Europe must insists that Hamas explicitly recognize the right of a sovereign Jewish state to exist in peace. If Hamas says that it can't or won't, Europe must diplomatically and financially isolate the PA's Islamist leadership. The one thing that should not happen is for Europe to allow Hamas to proclaim a truce while allowing the "bad terrorists" of the Aksa Martyrs Brigades and Islamic Jihad to continue "resistance operations." We already went down that road with Yasser Arafat. The new PA must do what the old PA didn't: live up to its road map commitments. Perhaps fate intended for the straight-talking Merkel to be on the scene ensuring that neither her EU allies nor Hamas proclaim one policy while adhering to another.