He's the very "abnormal" president of a country that he insists on describing as normal. He's disturbed by rising European extremism, but is convinced that Germany today is a state that can be counted on.
Gunter Grass angers him, but the writer's positions do not reflect those of most of his countrymen, he believes. He doesn't buy the games Iran is playing with the international community, but he doesn't support the way the Israeli prime minister is dealing with the situation, either.
Joachim Gauck, Germany's 11th president, begins his first official visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories on Tuesday, a visit that has generated a great deal of curiosity. And for good reason. In less than three months as president, the Lutheran pastor has developed the aura of a national superstar.
The charismatic Gauck, a former anti-Communist civil rights activist in East Germany, has been hailed as the "president of hearts" and 'Germany's Nelson Mandela." He is an apolitical personality and a proud patriot who describes himself as a "conservative liberal with leftist leanings."
All told, Gauck, one of the leaders of the |peaceful revolution| that led to the downing of the Berlin Wall, is a symbol in the eyes of his countrymen ¬ a symbol of freedom, unity and hope.
But regarding Israeli-German relations, hope is not the prevailing attitude. If anything, the opposite is true. In advance of Gauck's visit, Stern magazine published a poll showing that around two-thirds of Germans believe Israel is an "aggressive state," a "state that advances its own interests while ignoring other peoples," and worst of all, "a state to which Germany has no special responsibility."
In a wide-ranging interview with Haaretz on the eve of his visit, Gauck painted a complex picture of the mood in his country.
"I don't want to attach too much significance to opinion polls, but as a friend of Israel these results alarm me nevertheless," Gauck says.
"Although growing resentment of Israel isn't solely a German phenomenon, we Germans have to ask ourselves especially critically: In what spirit do we judge Israel's policies? We must do so purely in a spirit of friendship. It's certainly acceptable to voice criticism, but there's no room for prejudice."
He attributes the poll results to ignorance, which he plans to fight, and to a general wave of xenophobia that "flares up here and there, time and again."
According to Gauck, while nationalist extremists use anti-Semitic stereotypes, these "are not aimed at Israelis" but are meant to convey internal political messages. He notes that whenever right-wing extremists demonstrate in Germany's streets, they are confronted by counter-demonstrations 10 times the size.
Germany, he insists, "has a unique responsibility for Israel due to the darkest chapter in our history," a responsibility, he says, "that will never cease. Germany is fully committed to the security and right to exist of the State of Israel."
When asked about the scandal that arose this year when German Nobel laureate Gunter Grass argued that Israel, not Iran, is the true threat to world peace, Gauck answers decisively.
"Gunter Grass has expressed his personal opinion. He's allowed to do that. I don't in any way agree with what he said, and I want to categorically state that Gunter Grass' position is not in line with Germany's policy on Israel," Gauck says.
Grass himself later tried to explain that his comments were aimed at Israel's policies, apparently in an effort to integrate his criticism with that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"The chancellor is furious at [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and doesn't believe a word he says," Barak Ravid reported in Haaretz in October. That was only one of a long line of reports over the past year that have described the relationship between "Israel's best friend in Europe" and the Jewish state as being in crisis mode over the continuing construction in the settlements and the government's dealings with the Palestinians.
Asked about this, Gauck paints a complex picture once again. Clearly he has no intention of contradicting Merkel's stance and the position of other EU countries, which "have not been shy about making their views clear [about the settlements]. I believe it is always possible to speak openly and frankly and express critical words when you talk to friends," he says. But he makes clear that his visit is "an opportunity to express my friendship with the Israeli people."
Here he trots out the familiar formula about direct bilateral negotiations that are aimed at bringing about two states, during which "the legitimate interests of the Palestinian people must be taken into consideration." And the goal is also "to ensure that Israel can live in peace within secure borders."
Removing the threat posed by Iranian nukes is a top priority for the German president. The recent reports from the latest round of talks in Baghdad and the latest declarations from Tehran only increase his lack of trust in the ayatollahs' regime.
"I'm very concerned about Iran's nuclear program," he says. "Given the comments made by Iran's leaders, it not only represents a concrete threat to Israel but also a potential threat to the region and also for us in Europe."
He believes that Europe's tough sanctions are what has led Iran to the negotiating table and hopes that it will be possible to reach a diplomatic solution backed up by sanctions.
But he has no illusions. "At any rate, we will judge Tehran by its actions and not by its words," he says.
Immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gauck was dubbed the "Stasi hunter" for his efforts to publish thousands of classified documents from the archives of the East German secret police and to expose their crimes. Until then, for around four decades, he felt the heavy hand of the Soviet bloc country most hostile to Israel.
He is proud of the efforts his countrymen made to gain their freedom, and is proud that they, too, can "stand by Israel and Germany's responsibility for the Jewish people.
As someone who played a major role in that development, he is excited by the "wonderful message" from the Arab Spring, "which gives courage to the forces for freedom around the world."
With that, he understands Israel's concerns about regional Islamization "because the changes are neither uniform nor linear. No one can say today whether the changes will become firmly established at all, or in what direction they will go."
German intelligence chief Heinz Fromm recently warned about Islamic radicalization in Germany itself, and of the possibility that an anti-Jewish attack like the one in Toulouse, France in March could happen there as well.
Gauck promises that Germany will "show no tolerance of intolerance," but stresses that of the 4 million Muslims living in Germany, "the vast majority of them reject fundamentalism and actively oppose it."
The global economic crisis is leading to a different type of radicalization that troubles Gauck no less. Germany's austerity policy to restore the European economy is generating hostility toward Berlin; it provides the background to the rise of extreme right-wing and even Nazi parties, as well as extreme leftist parties.
Gauck, who describes Germany as a "quite normal country," and even "very normal," seeks to cool the rhetoric.
"In view of its history, its geographical location and its importance as one of the world's leading economic powers, Germany has a responsible role to play in Europe," he says. "The fact that Germany has transformed itself from the into an anchor of economic stability in Europe shouldn't give any cause for concern. We are happy to use our potential to overcome the crisis. We do so as committed Europeans."
At the same time, Gauck says, "the populists on the left and right who promise a seemingly easy way out of the crisis aren't helping anyone. The road to recovery will be long and demanding. I believe that sincerity and credibility are crucial when it comes to dealing with this situation."
Less than 100 days into his presidency, Gauck is enjoying widespread popularity. He assumed office after his two predecessors had to resign their presidencies early due to scandals, and expectations of him are sky-high. The Suddeutsche Zeitung wrote that "he has never surrendered to his critics." He says what he thinks and is expected to be an uninhibited and even uncontrollable president.
Asked about this, he says his main ambition is to create an active civil society in which people believe in their strengths and abilities. He welcomes the fact that the next generation of Germans is being educated to feel shame and sorrow about the history that his predecessors are responsible for.
He adds, however, "We are not only the country of guilt and the country of guilty people a guilt we have taken over and that we have accepted from our ancestors and our predecessors. We are also a country that has been able to achieve a remarkable economic miracle, a country that has been able to carry out a very enormous effort of returning to democracy and the rule of law and a constitutional state. I think that that is worthy of admiration.
"Now, at the age of 72, I see a complete other country than the one I knew in my youth. Because of that I would like to tell the younger generation not only what their grandfathers have done, but what their parents were able to create.
"I will therefore, come to Israel with a little bit more self-confidence, since I sincerely believe that Germany today can be trusted by other nations, Israel included.
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