He is one of the leading members of Germany's Christian Democratic Union party, a possible successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel and minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia, the country's most populous and richest state. In speaking with Jurgen Ruttgers, 57, one gets the impression he is also a committed, almost blind, friend of Israel, at a time when the attitude toward Israel in a number of European capitals has become noticeably cooler.
Ruttgers, who makes sure to come to Israel at least once a year, made an official visit to Jerusalem last week. As the German media focus on the economic crisis and its effect on the heavy industry of the Ruhr region within his state, Ruttgers remains wary of prospects for a quick recovery. He believes the crisis will only deepen this year, curbing growth the world over as well as in Germany, "at a level we haven't yet seen."
Still, he said, the crisis will do little to damage the wide-ranging cooperation between Germany and Israel, nor will the Netanyahu premiership harm Jerusalem's ties with Germany or with Europe at large.
Quite the contrary, he said: "I'm sure that the cooperation and friendship between Germany and Israel will continue and even grow stronger. I'm convinced that the new government in Israel will do everything in its power to advance the peace process."
In some ways, Merkel owes her ascent to power to Ruttgers. It was Ruttger's strong showing in North Rhine-Westphalia in 2005 that pushed former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to move up the general election, in which he was ultimately ousted from politics.
Merkel's election was considered good news in Israel, with which Schroeder had been seen as having relatively cold relations. On page 37 of the Christian Democratic Union's platform is a clause expressing the party's obligation to Israel, a clause Merkel refers to often in her speeches. "She is very close to Israel and an ardent supporter of peace in the Middle East," Ruttgers said.
How does that description fit with European voices calling for freezing a planned upgrade in Israel-Europe relations? And can meetings continue between European foreign ministers and their Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, who opposes the Annapolis process, views the two-state solution as "lacking content" and declares Syria is not "a true partner" for peace?
Ruttgers, who served as Germany's minister of education, science, research and technology under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, considers the point moot. "In my visit here three years ago I worked in the interest of upgrading ties between Israel and the European Union," he said. "Being responsible for science and research, I gave these issues tremendous importance. In the past 10 years we have seen Israeli-European cooperation grow very successful, and I'm convinced it will be possible to continue advancing those relations."
Ruttgers, no great believer in public pronouncements, diplomatically chose to address the Lieberman issue indirectly. "I know that the Israeli government is currently examining its relations with Syria," he said, indicating that he fears the Syrian track could potentially push the Palestinian issue to the wayside. "Relations with the Palestinians obligate a continued search for a solution of two states for two peoples," he said.
Ruttgers is proud that Germany boycotted last month's Durban Review Conference on racism, which some feared would feature a reprise of the anti-Israel rhetoric expressed at the first Durban conference, in 2001, and strikes an uncompromising tone regarding Iran.
"As Germans we cannot under any circumstances accept attacks against the State of Israel or its right to exist, such as were expressed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad [at the Durban II summit] in Geneva," said Ruttgers. "His stance needs to undergo a significant change. Peace in the Middle East can only be achieved after such a change, which will include recognition of Israel and a guarantee of its security. Without that, there will be no progress in our relations with Iran."
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