Gaza violence Germany rejects ‘loudspeaker diplomacy’ in Middle East

Berlin, historically cautious about Middle East crises, had an unusually strong reaction to the Israel-Gaza violence this week. But it’s still trying to keep a line open to both sides.
The rocks didn't help. But neither did Israel's response.

The international response was sharp but predictably divided as the Israel-Gaza border witnessed some of the worst violence in years, resulting in the death of 58 Palestinians and the injury of thousands more.

The US, which had partially provoked the outbreak by opening an embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, placed the blame squarely on Hamas, the Palestinian militant group organizing protests. Much of the world, including France, instead condemned Israel’s heavy-handed response.

Germany, ever torn when it comes to Middle East disputes given its own history, predictably wavered. But unlike past, more cautions responses, this time it called out both sides with sharply chosen words. In a region with few good actors, and even fewer impartial observers, that could be a valuable change.

Israel may have a right to protect its borders, but it must “exercise proportionality” in doing so, “and this is especially true for the use of live ammunition,” Steffen Seibert, spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel, said on Tuesday. Hamas was criticized too for provoking the violence. “The right to peaceful protest must not be misused,” Mr. Seibert added.

We don’t need loudspeaker diplomacy right now. Volker Perthes, German Institute for International and Security Affairs

It’s not the first time that Germany has aggressively staked out the middle ground in the region. Germany, Britain and France are leading efforts to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive (which Israel opposes). But Berlin also squarely blamed Iran for rocket attacks on Israeli positions from Syria, calling it a “serious provocation that we strongly condemn.”

That makes Germany a rare impartial voice in the region. “We don’t need loudspeaker diplomacy right now,” said Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Rather than blaming one side or the other, Mr. Perthes said Berlin should use the level of trust it has built with Israel to affect change.

There are signs that Israel also values Germany’s role. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Ms. Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron by telephone on Tuesday night. Israel characterized the call with Mr. Macron as a defense of actions in Gaza, but the call with Ms. Merkel sounded more constructive — involving not just Gaza but the future of the Iran nuclear deal.

For her part, Ms. Merkel has seized the chance to influence Israel, taking her case for preserving the Iran nuclear deal directly to the Israeli public in April. Speaking to Israel’s Channel 10, she emphasized Germany’s special relationship with Israel, "stemming from the eternal responsibility we bear for the Shoah" (the Hebrew word for Holocaust) and adding she was "saddened" that anti-Semitism still exists in Germany.

Both the Israelis and Palestinians have lessons to learn from Monday’s violence in the Gaza Strip, Mr. Perthes said: “The cynicism of sending minors to the border fence, knowing that they will be shot, is at least as great as those who choose to shoot at anyone who protests.”

The trouble is there’s no real plan to address the powder keg. In the past, the impetus for reviving international peace efforts came from the United States. This time, such impetus can only come with help from Russia, the Europeans, and the United Nations. Maybe with a nudge from Germany.

Torsten Riecke is based in Berlin and covers international affairs for Handelsblatt. Christopher Cermak is an editor covering politics, economics and finance for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]