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German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, welcomes the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanjahu, in front of the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 for a joint dinner prior to intergovernmental talks on Thursday. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn, pool)
As Netanyahu visits Europe, relations frayed

First Published Dec 05 2012 07:32 pm • Last Updated Dec 05 2012 07:32 pm

Berlin • It was supposed to be an amicable meeting between close friends. Instead, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Germany has been soured by Berlin’s refusal to oppose a Palestinian U.N. statehood bid and anger throughout Europe over Israeli plans to expand settlements around Jerusalem.

The sensitivity of Netanyahu’s trip to one of Israel’s closest allies in Europe offers a taste of the increasing displeasure on the continent at his government’s seeming intransigence, particularly over Jewish settlements on lands the Palestinians want for a future state.

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Europeans, however, appear at a loss to develop an effective strategy of their own to pressure Israel to move forward on a moribund peace process with the deeply divided Palestinians. And it was unclear how hard Germany was prepared to push the Israelis.

The European Union came nowhere near a united front when the U.N. General Assembly voted last week to upgrade the Palestinians’ diplomatic status — effectively recognizing a Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.

In a slap to Israel, its closest European allies — Britain, Germany, Italy and France — all abstained or voted with the Palestinians. The Czech Republic, where Netanyahu stopped on his way to Berlin, was the only EU country to join the U.S. and Israel in voting against the measure.

Germany’s decision to abstain rather than vote against a Palestinian state shocked Israel and sets the scene for tense talks between Netanyahu and Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday night and Thursday. The issue overshadowed the two governments’ official program of cooperation on science, education and business at an annual meeting of their two Cabinets.

Israel’s next move heated the atmosphere further: Its announcement Friday that it would move ahead on plans to build 3,000 settler homes in a strategic corridor near Jerusalem. Palestinians said the settlement, whose construction would be years away, effectively cuts the West Bank in two and breaks the link between the West Bank and east Jerusalem — their hoped-for capital.

"It would be insincere to hide the fact that I was disappointed by the German vote at the United Nations — like many people in Israel," Netanyahu told the German daily Die Welt. "I think Chancellor Merkel was of the opinion that this vote would somehow encourage peace. In fact, the opposite happened."

Since the settlement announcement, at least six European countries — Britain, France, Spain, Sweden, Denmark and Italy — and the EU in Brussels have called in Israeli ambassadors to protest the plan.

Germany didn’t join them, but still issued a sharp expression of displeasure. Merkel has long criticized Israel’s settlement activities, and her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said the move was "undermining confidence" in Israel’s "readiness to negotiate."

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On Wednesday, however, Israel pushed the settlement plan further along in the planning pipeline, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he would seek U.N. Security Council help in blocking the construction.

Nevertheless, German analysts say they don’t see a fundamental change in Germany’s overall policy toward Israel. Support for Israel has been a cornerstone of German policy — in part due to the sense of responsibility rooted in the Nazi Holocaust.

Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, said confused diplomatic signals from all sides in the run-up to the U.N. vote, "combined with some longer-term dissatisfaction," appeared to have led to the German abstention.

"I wouldn’t take it as a sign that Germany has changed course on Israel," she said.

Merkel appears concerned about the long-term route to a two-state solution — a Jewish Israel alongside a Palestinian nation — and a continuing lack of concrete Israeli plans on how to achieve that goal, said Sylke Tempel, a Mideast expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

"We do want to have a two-state solution. We do understand that it’s much more difficult than it seems, we do understand it’s not only the settlements that are in the way of a two-state solution, we do understand that the Palestinians have to do their part as well," she said. "But you have to come around and give us some ideas as to how you would like to proceed."

Netanyahu announced his support for a Palestinian state in a 2009 speech but has been vague on what concessions he is prepared to make. He also attached conditions the Palestinians find unacceptable — among them a continued Israeli military presence in the West Bank and a refusal to share sovereignty over east Jerusalem.

Merkel herself stressed in a speech to a Jewish audience a day before the U.N. vote that Israel’s security remains a central plank of German policy, and declared that "we are not neutral." She underlined Israel’s right to defend itself but stressed that "in the long term, this region can only find peace through negotiations."

"That requires painful compromises from both sides, because nothing will really be gained either by unilateral Palestinian initiatives at the United Nations, which aim for recognition, or by Israel’s continued building of settlements in the West Bank and in the Jerusalem area," Merkel said.

No matter how deep Europe’s concern, it is unlikely the Europeans can reach a consensus on painful measures such as using their trade leverage.

On Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague downplayed the possibility of European economic sanctions against Israel, saying there is "no enthusiasm" for such a move.

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