PM defends building in Gilo to German FM

PM defends building in G

netanyahu westerwelle 248.88 (photo credit: GPO)
netanyahu westerwelle 248.88
(photo credit: GPO)
New German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle arrived in Israel Monday evening for his maiden visit in his new position, amid increasingly strident statements coming from Berlin over construction in east Jerusalem and the settlements. Westerwelle met Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu soon after his arrival, and raised the issues of settlement construction and the approved housing units in Gilo. Netanyahu, according to officials in his office, said Israel was not going to build any new settlements or expropriate any new land to expand existing settlements, and was willing to put restraints on new housing starts in the West Bank. Regarding Gilo, the prime minister told his visitor that the neighborhood was just "three to four minutes from the Knesset," not a settlement, 40-years-old and an integral part of the capital. In addition to meeting Netanyahu, Westerwelle went to Yad Vashem Monday evening, then had dinner with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Westerwelle is scheduled to go to Ramallah early Tuesday morning for talks, followed by another meeting with Lieberman, a brief press conference, and then a meeting with President Shimon Peres before leaving Israel in the afternoon. In Berlin, meanwhile, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman, Ulrich Wilhelm, told reporters Monday at a press conference that "we greatly regret the recent decision to allow the construction of new homes in east Jerusalem." "Settlement building in east Jerusalem is a major stumbling block on the road toward sustainable progress in the Middle East peace process," he said in a rare public rebuke of Jerusalem. He was not alone. Ruprecht Polenz, an MP from Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and member of the Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee, also took Israel to task, saying that "the Israelis are gradually committing political suicide." "We are viewed in Israel as friends," he said, "and that gives us the possibility to address things that we consider false. For example, the settlement policy." Germany's Jewish community, meanwhile, criticized Westerwelle's Free Democratic Party for its pro-Iranian trade policy, and also spoke of a "bitter aftertaste" that lingered from FDP entanglements with Israel in the early part of the decade. In a clear reference to the party's trade policy, the general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Stephan J. Kramer, told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper that "the FDP must decide between the interests of the German economy and the security needs of Israel and its right to exist." Iran was a major issue in Westerwelle's talks with Netanyahu, with an official in the Prime Minister's Office saying that both Israel and Germany "see the seriousness of the threat posed by the nuclear development, and the need for the international community to prevent proliferation." Kramer also referred to the FDP's past policies toward Israel, particularly the mass mailing of flyers in 2002 by one of the party's top politicians, the late Juergen Moellemann, blasting former prime minister Ariel Sharon's policies. The literature also blamed Michel Friedman, a vice president of the Jewish community, for anti-Semitism in the Federal Republic. Moreover, the FDP charged during the 2002 German election campaign that Israel had used "Nazi methods" against the Palestinians. The party also articulated understanding for Palestinian suicide bombers. Kramer told the Passauer that "a bitter aftertaste remains" from the Moellemann affair and "still hovers over Guido Westerwelle and the FDP like a sword of Damocles." The German Jewish leader added, however, that there was "now a possibility" to reach a change in relations between the FDP and Israel. The Jerusalem Post's front page story Sunday on Westerwelle's visit was cited in the Passauer article and in a number of large national dailies. German media noted that the Post was the only Israeli newspaper to have devoted headline coverage to Westerwelle's second visit to Israel since 2002, and that had revisited the Moellemann controversy. In other diplomatic developments, Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, currently in Turkey for a series of economic meetings, said that Turkey could "solve problems in the Middle East." Ben-Eliezer is the highest-level Israeli official to visit Turkey since the relations between the two countries took a nosedive following bitter Turkish criticism in the wake of Operation Cast Lead. Ben-Eliezer told a group of Turkish business representatives that Israel "wants to continue and strengthen relations. We want to clean [up] the cloudy situation." He added that "as within families, there are ups and downs, but the basis of the relationship is strong." Later, the minister told Turkish reporters that Turkey "can play a very important role in all problems in the Middle East - with the Palestinians and the Syrians." He acknowledged there was a difference of opinion on Turkey's role as a mediator within Israel, saying Lieberman respected Turkey but believed that the country "is not yet ready to be a mediator in the conflict in the Middle East." Lieberman said Sunday that Turkey, by virtue of its acerbic comments toward Israel, had disqualified itself as a mediator between Israel and Syria. But the state-run Anatolia news agency also quoted Ben-Eliezer as saying Turkey could help "to put things back on track" between Israel and Syria. AP contributed to this report.