I would like to thank both Guido Westerwelle and his government for their very clear positions in all matters that are so important to us. On the issue of Gilad Shalit, on the issue of the unilateral initiatives, on the issue of the need for any future Palestinian government to recognize the conditions of the Quartet, on the Iranian issue and on almost all the issues.
Press conference with Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Israel, Avigdor Liberman, and Foreign Minister of Germany, Guido Westerwelle
English translation of press conference:
Moderator: Hello. Welcome to the press conference here at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, with German Foreign Minister Mr. Guido Westerwelle and with the Israeli Foreign Minister Mr. Avigdor Liberman. We will begin with two statements by the ministers and then we will take questions from the press: two questions from the Israeli press, two questions from the German press. The statements will be given in Hebrew and in German. You may use the simultaneous translation devices. You may ask your questions in either Hebrew, English or German, but the statements will be given in Hebrew and German. We will begin with the statement by Mr. Westerwelle, German Foreign Minister. Minister, please.
FM Westerwelle: Ladies and gentlemen, Avigdor, Mr. Minister:
I’m very pleased to be your guest again here in Jerusalem.
We Germans regard Israel as a friend and partner – and at the same time feel a special responsibility toward the State of Israel – not only because of historical events, but also because of our shared democratic values.
The meeting that took place here was a meeting of friends. And our friendship with Israel is not only for me but also for the German nation as a whole a reason of state, and thus the meeting took place in a very constructive atmosphere, where we discussed issues of both global and regional import.
First of all, I’d like to say that as we have excellent relations from a bilateral standpoint, there is no great need to discuss these matters – plus the fact that we conduct an ongoing dialogue with each other concerning all of the issues that are of importance to the relations between our two countries. This is now my 13th trip to the region and my fourth to Israel during my relatively short tenure thus far. And the present trip is taking place in a time of fundamental change in North Africa and the Middle East.
These historical developments are of course also bringing about change in Israel’s regional circumstances, and thus it was of particular importance for me to see at first hand the Israeli government’s take on the break with the past that is now unfolding in various Arabic countries, and to see which risks and opportunities are entailed by these changes.
Conversely, I of course brought my Israeli partners up to speed on the relevant developments and debate in the European Union.
We feel strongly that it is essential that the direct-talks phase be restarted.
We exhorted our Israeli partners to return to the negotiating table, in the interests of all concerned.
We call upon all sides to display flexibility in this regard, and not to drag their feet, but to instead return to the negotiating table quickly and in good faith and with the big-picture view firmly in mind. This is my core message.
We would like to see the Middle East peace process begin moving forward again, and thus it was of interest for me to see, for example, which problems our Israeli friends are facing and what the underlying causes of these problems might be.
But I’d also like to make one thing very clear here: we oppose unilateral steps. We are convinced that unilateral steps – even against the backdrop of the upcoming UN General Assembly meeting in September – would be counterproductive.
Unilateral steps would only exacerbate the problems, would not bring us closer to peace, and would probably have the exact opposite effect. And thus I once again told my Israeli partners that the German government’s position on this matter is unambiguous.
We want to see full fledged negotiations, not unilateral steps. We are in favor of a two-state solution – but one that is reached through negotiations and mutual understanding. Anything else would jeopardize the cause of peace; and in the final analysis we want to expand the scope of peace and security for Israel and all other States in the region.
At this juncture, I’d like to say a few words about Gilad Shalit.
The last time I was here standing at his podium, I was on my way to Gaza, where I also took the opportunity once again to call for Gilad’s release, also before the Gaza media.
As some of you may recall, I had visited Gilad’s father a short time earlier. It has now been nearly five years since this poor young man was captured. This is a veritable nightmare that has deeply affected not only Gilad’s family, and Israel, but also Germany – and me personally. I therefore appeal to Gilad’s captors to free him. Let him return to his family. I am asking for this in the name of humaneness, and I wanted to be sure to not let this day go by without making this appeal.
In conclusion, I’d like to say that in our view, every possible action that could potentially move the peace process forward should be taken, and any possible action that could hold the peace process back should be foregone.
Only through negotiations and the restart of discussions is there any chance of achieving success in the long term; and we have a close friendship with the State of Israel and our personal friendship with Israel also of course finds expression in the fact that we give Israel our advice and vice versa; and of course Israel also gives us assessments that are of great importance for formulating our objectives in Europe.
I’d like to thank you once again, Avigdor, for extending me such a warm welcome and would also like to express my gratitude for our having been able to conduct such a constructive dialogue in such a congenial atmosphere.
Israeli FM Liberman: I would like to thank my colleague Guido Westerwelle for his very clear positions, both his own personal positions and those of his government, and I have nothing to add other than to thank him.
First of all, I would like, once again, to thank both Guido Westerwelle and his government for their very clear positions in all matters that are so important to us. On the issue of Gilad Shalit, on the issue of the unilateral initiatives, on the issue of the need for any future Palestinian government to recognize the conditions of the Quartet, on the Iranian issue and on almost all the issues. I agree that the need to reopen direct negotiations between us and the Palestinians is vital, precisely because of all the developments in the region and, once again, I can reaffirm that we are prepared at any given moment to reopen the negotiations, to sit around the table and to discuss all the issues.
I was very interested to hear the impressions of the German Foreign Minister, who came here from Libya, about developments in the region. We also spoke about the situation in the region. I think it necessary to emphasize yet again that I believe that the real picture and the real agenda, not only for us, but for the entire world, must be clear. Recent developments in the Arab world, including in Libya, Syria and Yemen, must be the top priority. With all the self-esteem and all the importance of the relationship between us and the Palestinians, we have the situation under control. With all the disputes and all the tension connected with things here, we really cannot compare either the importance or the situation itself to what we now see, for example, in Syria, or the ramifications of what will happen in Yemen. So it is also important to emphasize, and I definitely think that the Palestinian issue, on the backdrop of everything that is happening, must also get onto some kind of track of at least one ongoing and regular handling. We understand and we are open and we do not want to make things difficult for anyone.
In summary, I would like, once again, to emphasize two things. The bilateral relations: I think that they really are excellent relations on all fronts. I am glad that now our consulate in Munich is actually beginning to operate. I would like to congratulate the outgoing German ambassador for the five and a half fascinating years that he spent in Tel Aviv and the contribution he made to advancing the bilateral relations, and I would also like to welcome the new ambassador, for those who are not acquainted with him, who is replacing the outgoing ambassador. With regard to the outgoing ambassador, I think that this is his last official meeting in his capacity as ambassador of Germany. Thank you for your contribution and I hope to see you and to meet with you again in the future. Thank you.
Moderator: We will now begin to take questions from the press. We’ll start with Israel Radio, Mr. Shmuel Tal.
Mr. Tal: Mr. Westerwelle, hi. I would like to ask you a question: Is it true that the Europeans request that the Americans present a peace program? And if so, why doesn’t Europe present a peace program itself, and why do the Americans have to get advice from Europe regarding what to do here? And is the reason for it the failure of the French program regarding this, what we were saying?
An answer like that – from Mr. Liberman, please.
[After loud noises from the sound system]
Shmulik, from those noises, it sounds like someone “up above” is mad at you…please remind me, what was the first question?
Shmuel Tal: How do you relate to the European plans versus the American? Is there any need for European prodding to…
FM Liberman: Thank you.
FM Westerwelle: There is no competition between the European Union and the United States of America. We are good friends, we are close partners and we try to bring progress into the discussion of the Middle East peace process. And we just came back, the German government, from our talks with President Obama and Secretary Clinton last week, and of course we discussed whether there is room for flexibility. I had some interesting discussions this morning with Prime Minister Fayad in Ramallah. I had a phone call with President Abbas. And I’m very grateful for the intensive discussion I had with Prime Minister Netanyahu and with my friend and colleague Avigdor Liberman. And so we tried to find out how we can be supportive; this is our idea. And I think it’s an interpretation — I couldn’t accept that there is any kind of competition between both governments. And for us — I mean, you know that we are convinced that the Quartet is helpful. We think that the Quartet could play a constructive role. We want to revitalize it, we want to use this format, and this is something we have to discuss if this could be a way that we are not in a difficult situation in September. But it’s like my colleague said: We have so many other topics on the agenda. For example, it is very important for us to discuss the situation in Syria, in Yemen, in Egypt, in Jordan, in Lebanon. And so, as you can imagine, we had a full-packed agenda.
Mr. Tal: Could we have you on record: What is the statement of Germany regarding September in the United Nations? Please, in English.
FM Westerwelle: Yes, I can repeat what I said in my native language of course. We do not support unilateral steps. We think unilateral steps would be counterproductive, and so we ask everyone not to go on this path. We think unilateral steps are not helpful.
FM Liberman: As you know, there have been more than a few peace initiatives in the past. The Saudi initiative and now we also see the French initiative. I think that it is clear to everyone that the leading entity, the dominant entity, is still the US, and I am glad that more than competition, we are seeing cooperation between the European Union and the United States. A lot more cooperation than competition. Which is also in contrast to the past. And I think that the cooperation is important. What is even more important is not these initiatives but rather the decision to begin negotiations without any excuses and without reasons and without explanations. And that has been our position since this administration took office. No one needs to look for excuses. We must sit around the negotiating table and discuss all the problems and all the issues. I must note that when I look at the most senior international forum, the G8, I am also happy to see a very clear stand. I am not talking only about the US, but also about countries such as Canada, such as Germany, such as Italy. I think they have expressed a very clear position, and we all understand that unilateral steps really do not contribute to improving the situation. They only complicate it. Thank you
Moderator: Our next question for the German press will be from Mr. Christian Sievers for ZDF Television.
Mr. Sievers: Thank you very much. Minister Westerwelle, if memory serves, you and I have been here, to Israel, four times, as you just said. Is there any element now that makes you more optimistic than you were during your past visits? What would you respond to someone back home in Germany who said to you that this type of peace process never bears any fruit?
And Minister Liberman, if I may, I would be very interested in a word or two from you on the situation on the Syrian-Israeli border. What is it you would like to tell President Assad?
FM Westerwelle: It seems to me that you can regard the “Arab Spring” as a great challenge on one hand, and perhaps, if we don’t keep our eye on the ball, as a major threat to Israeli security.
But actually it seems to me that the opportunities far outweigh the risks and threats.
The opportunity I see here is that the “Arab Spring” can potentially bring the countries affected a step closer to democracy and can also improve the situation in the Middle East – in other words, begin a new chapter in the annals of the history of this region.
And that is without a doubt a window of opportunity – one that is not risk-free, however. But it also presents a golden opportunity.
One of the reasons why we are being so proactive on the foreign policy and diplomatic fronts at present is to seize the opportunities that are being presented to us in this regard.
And for us our friendship with Israel is a reason of state. Israel and Germany share democratic values and it is in the interests of both of our nations to see democracy gaining ground. This applies to the Arab world as well.
And for all the risks that may be involved in terms of Israel’s security, it is nonetheless essential that we seize the opportunities that are being presented to us.
I tread carefully when it comes to using the words pessimism and optimism. What I try to do instead is to take a realistic view of such a difficult situation. Nor is this a matter of whether the tensions build or ease in a month.
What we need to do here is take a sufficiently long view of the situation to enable the peace process to move forward. Perhaps we won’t see any improvement year in and year out, but I clearly recall my first official trip to Israel ten years ago and the circumstances under which I gave a press conference in Ramallah with President Arafat. I clearly recall my discussions with Prime Minister Sharon at the time, and I think it’s safe to say that the cause of democracy is being served, that our Enlightenment values are being propagated; and we want to seize this opportunity.
And so it is in this sense that realism is an accurate description of my personal feeling concerning today’s discussions.
FM Liberman: Regarding the situation on our northern border with Syria, I think, for everybody who saw in the last week on the TV screens the repression and the atrocities, the conclusion is very simple and very clear: President Assad must resign as soon as possible, and it’s despite all our bilateral relations with Syria. For everybody who respects human rights and democratic values, it’s really unacceptable what we see today in Syria. And I think also the EU position, especially the EU initiative in the Security Council, is very important. But even without the Security Council, I think that my expectation is to see really serious tangible steps regarding this regime. For example, we can expect from the EU countries to call back all their ambassadors from Damascus to their countries.
Mr. Sievers: Are you worried that something might happen out there?
FM Liberman: Okay, I worry. All normal people, we worry about the situation within Syria. We are worried about the innocent people who are suffering. But I think that we’re strong enough to protect ourselves. It’s not my personal worry regarding our bilateral relations with Syria. It’s a very bad sign and a very bad message if this regime and if this president will survive and if he will succeed in suppressing these protests and uprising.
Moderator: Next question for the Israeli media —
FM Westerwelle: We share this concern.
Moderator: Ms. Ilil Shahar for IDF Radio.
Ms. Shachar: Mr. Foreign Minister, in the matter of the follow-up on the issue of Syria, do you think that military intervention by the Western countries is required? And in the matter of Egypt, the young Israeli man who is imprisoned there, does he have any connection to the State of Israel? We’ve heard that the consul visited him today. Maybe you have some news, about when he will be released? And a question for the German Foreign Minister: do you intend to promote an initiative in the UN Security Council, an alternative draft resolution in place of the unilateral Palestinian declaration of a state and, if so, what will such a proposal contain?
FM Liberman: Thank you very much. I don’t think that there is any reason for military intervention. In any case, it is not our place to call for military intervention in Syria. I think that the international community has enough leverage and tools to force President Assad to resign and to leave Syria, or to resign from office. There is enough leverage – economic, political, diplomatic, and the international community must use all those tools. A situation in which he succeeds in oppressing this yearning for change, for freedom by shooting at innocent citizens from helicopters would be a terrible development.
But, again, we should not be leading this. It is not our place and we rely on our friends, both in the European Union and in North America, to lead the proper line. I think that here there is a need for unity. In this matter, the world must not see different approaches to Libya and to Syria and to Iran. Here we must adopt one uniform and consistent approach to all these régimes, and I think that would be for the good of all of us.
With regard to the Israeli who was imprisoned in Egypt, as you were already told this afternoon, our consul visited him. The impression was that he is in good condition and we also hope that he will be released quickly. Because there is no reason not to. I repeat, this may be a young guy who is not responsible enough. But he has no connection to any intelligence entity, to any security entities. This is apparently just an innocent guy who is not responsible enough, and there is no reason to keep him in prison.
FM Westerwelle: Let me first address your question about Syria. I fully share Mr. Liberman’s view concerning the atrocities currently being perpetrated by the Syrian government against its own people.
These atrocities call for a concerted international response, which is why Germany, along with the other European members of the Security Council, have also gotten the ball rolling for adoption of a resolution.
The international community absolutely must speak clearly, and with one voice, about the situation in Syria.
As a Member State of the European Union, Germany has been pushing for the implementation of sanctions as soon as possible. Such sanctions include travel restrictions and freezing assets. In other words, we instigated the process of the European Union imposing judiciously selected sanctions not only on Syria as a whole, but also on President Assad himself. And some sanctions of this nature have in fact already been adopted.
Hence our efforts are focusing on international isolation and political pressure. We are firmly convinced that political pressure as well as political isolation will bear fruit, and we are working toward ensuring that these goals are achieved in a concerted manner in the entire international community – and of course particularly in New York.
Now to your question about September.
We want to avoid a deadlock in September. To this end, we are also working on alternatives and on ways to avoid a Security Council deadlock in September and in the UN General Assembly.
That’s one of the reasons why I devoted so many hours to the discussions today – in order to get a feel for how much wiggle room there is, so that we don’t end up with a sticky and deadlocked situation in the UN come September, as this would serve the interests of no one, and would in particular jeopardize the cause of peace and security in the Middle East.
Moderator: Last question now for Ms. Silka Mertel (ph.) for Financial Times Deutschland.
Ms. Mertel: Minister Liberman, the German government is expecting the Israeli side to show more flexibility to avoid the Palestinians going to the United Nations, especially to stop building settlements and to negotiate on the basis of the ’67 borders. Can you offer this?
And to Minister Westerwelle, have you heard anything new today when it comes to these points?
FM Liberman: I think that we’re ready for flexibility, but we expect decisions, not only for meetings, not only for discussions, but readiness to make real and tough decisions. And I’m not sure that the other side is ready to make these decisions.
Regarding the settlements, again, in my understanding, I am not sure that the settlements are obstacles to peace. And we’re trying here today not to change the demographic reality in Judea and Samaria but to provide normal life for the people who have been living for dozens of years in these settlements. As you know, we signed peace agreements with Egypt, with Jordan, despite the settlements. And the opposite is also true: We evacuated 23 flourishing settlements from the Gaza Strip; but we didn’t see any peaceful result for this evacuation. In any case, I completely agree that it’s much better to discuss all problems even without any guarantees that we will agree about all issues or all problems. But the negotiations are a much better alternative than the stalemate as we see today. I think also that it’s impossible in advance to agree to the results of the talks. The final borders must be a result of the negotiation process. And it’s unacceptable for us to agree to the ’67 lines without any negotiation, without any talks. And we have a lot of questions, like, first of all, refugees, like recognition of Israel as the national home for the Jewish people. And we too could put these questions on the table in advance and to come with this counterproductive approach to demand these answers from the Palestinian side before talks, before negotiations.
FM Westerwelle: I mean this is work in progress. So we had a discussion today and we will continue this discussion. So this does not mean that we can answer every question, because we want to use the next weeks and the next months until September to prevent such a difficult situation in the United Nations, and this is our goal and this is what we work for.
And you asked ‘Did you hear anything new?’ We had a discussion for several hours today, and I would describe it in that way. It was constructive, fruitful and, from my point of view, it was very positive that we can discuss the next steps in the European Union and in the German government. I think it was very helpful. So it was anything but a waste of time.
Moderator: Okay, thank you very much. This press conference is over. Thank you for attending, and we hope to host you again in Jerusalem very soon.