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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lands today in a city that even its inhabitants find difficult to recognize. There have been tremendous changes in Berlin's urban landscape, and Berliners find it hard to assimilate - that it's possible to see the sky again after years of construction cranes, with new modern buildings gradually filling up the empty space: the Chancellory - dubbed the washing machine by locals; the glass dome of the Reichstag, embassy row, the various headquarters of Germany's federal states; the reborn Museum Island; and above all, Potsdam Square and nearby Leipzig Square, reborn to turn the old no-man's land of divided Berlin into a merger of East and West.

Despite a financial crisis and political shocks, Berlin of summer 2001 is a happy city, self-satisfied. The city is confident in itself and in its national representatives, who themselves exude an air of self-confidence.

Joschka Fischer, for example. Together with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, he's enjoying very high popularity ratings - now at the 70 percent mark. The revelations of his militant past in the 1960s didn't harm him. On the contrary, they served him well. Germans, it turns out, were happy to find out that their number one diplomat knows about a very different - and wild - life. He wasn't born wearing a tailored suit. Striking a policemen during a 1975 demonstration in Frankfurt was accepted with tolerance.

The 53-year-old German foreign minister, an ex-taxi driver who once worked in a car plant, is now one of the most respected statesmen in Europe in general and Germany in particular. His visit to Israel in June added to the respect.

Fischer happened to be in Israel at the time of the Dolphinarium bombing and "proved that the Europeans can offer the area more than just financial aid," marveled the German press. It's claimed that he was the one who persuaded Sharon that "restraint is power," arguing that Israel was never weaker than when it used F-16s on Nablus. He imposed the cease-fire agreement on Yasser Arafat, and his activities apparently were what got the Americans out of their bunker and back into play in the Middle East.

When the Americans fall asleep, the Europeans wake up, was the message that reached Washington. Powell got the hint and started packing his bags.

In an interview with Ha'aretz in his Berlin office in the refurbished Reichsbank, opposite Erich Honecker's old Palace of the Republic, Fischer talks about what commentators refer to as "a turning point in German and European involvement in the Middle East."

"The European Union is now playing a very important, constructive role," he says. "This was proven after the terror attack in Tel Aviv. While Israel traditionally was very reticent about any role for the EU in the region, it seems that Israel had been through a positive change, as can be seen in its acceptance of the Sharm el Sheikh agreement and the Mitchell Commission, in which the high representative of the EU, Javier Solana, took part."

The power of persuasion

Is Fischer convinced of this or is it wishful thinking? European observers dealing with the Middle East say that Fischer's words indicate he is "very connected to his `Europhile' friend Shimon Peres. It's clear that Sharon's attitude is very different. His rejection of European involvement has not changed a bit," say these observers.

Gunther Nonnenmacher, one of the editors-in-chief of the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung, is skeptical about the idea of a "turning point" in European involvement in the Middle East. "Because of its past, it's difficult to see Germany operating independently, outside the European umbrella. And Europe knows that its influence on Israel is limited. In any case," he adds, "there's no unified EU policy right now. So it's reasonable to assume the Europeans will continue their traditional role: financial aid."

Josef Joffe, editor of the weekly Die Zeit, agrees. "Europe is not capable of providing Israel the "existential dimension" that the U.S. does. The Europeans can't be Israel's `insurance policy' so can't ask her to take risks. After all, even in the Balkans the Europeans weren't able to take significant action without U.S. backing."

Fischer, it seems, doesn't accept that analysis. Ultimately, he believes that Europe has a longer-lasting interest in the region than America. "The EU's role in the region is becoming ever more significant. It's in our interest. We are neighbors. Every crisis in the Middle East affects us directly. The Americans may have strategic interests in the region but they are further away. The Mediterranean and then the Atlantic separate them from the region. But the distance from Israel to Cyprus, which is joining the union, is less than an hour's flight. We are direct neighbors."

The head of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Israel, Dr. Winfried Veit, believes Israeli public opinion is much readier now than in the past to accept European and German involvement in the peace process. "It's expressed, for example, in the press. Some of the columnists have even directly called for such intervention," he points out.

Fischer's successful moves in Israel in the beginning of June may have contributed to that. According to Die Zeit's Joffe, "Fischer's warm attitude toward Israel is very genuine, even if his `pro-Israel' approach has to be taken in `European terms.'" It's important to know that Fischer was the first of the graduates of the 1968 movement to recognize in the German left of the 1980s an anti-Zionism that was a form of anti-Semitism, anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism - and he came out against it."

Israel's Foreign Ministry says that the fact that "Sharon's first visit to Europe begins in Germany is no accident. Germany is the friendliest country to Israel on the continent. As far as Fischer is concerned, the diplomats in Jerusalem say, "he's proven to everyone that when European pressure is added to American pressure, Arafat is left without friends, Arafat has to give in."

Fischer, for his part, asks to offer a balanced picture. "Both sides have to work energetically to implement a genuine cease-fire that ends the violence and suffering," he says. "It's very important that the Palestinian Authority support the cease-fire and the peace process, but it's also important that the Palestinian population have the motivation to support the peace process - their conditions in the territories must be improved."

Although he emphasizes that security and settlements are not "parallel," he does create a direct connection between them. "The problem now is that there's a total collapse of faith in each other. Before the process can resume, trust has to be rebuilt; otherwise, the expectations are for very difficult problems in the future. From my point of view, new trust requires security for Israel and an absolute end to the violence. Many of my friends in the peace camp ask me `do we still have a partner for peace?' This is a matter of trust

"The Palestinians," he goes on, "are asking the same question, From their point of view, the most critical issue of trust is tied to the promise that there won't be any changes in the territories as far as the settlements are concerned. In other words, security on one side and settlements on the other. That doesn't make them parallel issues but I think that when we are talking about rebuilding a state of trust. Both those issues are very important.

Against international involvement

Jerusalem will certainly be encouraged by Fischer's support for two of Israel's toughest positions: no return to Ehud Barak's plan and no international intervention.

"I am totally committed to the solution of step by step," says the German minister. "The most important question is connected to implementation. No more promises, no more documents - though they are important - but practical means to implement positive changes on the ground as part of a step-by-step plan that includes security cooperation."

While he's no doubt a supporter of a Palestinian state and evacuation of the settlements as part of a final status agreement, he refuses to discuss that now. "I am not talking now about evacuating settlements, but freezing them. So there are no changes on the ground. The need for a step-by-step plan is because it's a very fragile process - one day we get encouraging news from the Middle East, and the next day we get depressing news from the region. One terrible terror attack can change the situation fundamentally. Now we need stability, a sustainable cease-fire, a cooling off period and confidence-building measures. Final status discussions can't take place until all those other conditions are fulfilled."

The Germany of Schroeder and Fischer is gradually getting used to the need to take part in international operations in regional conflicts around the globe. The German Army involvement in the Kosovo conflict was accepted, after stormy debates, even by the pacifist Green Party that Fischer leads. Nonetheless, Fischer insists he does not plan to respond to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's call for international involvement in the territories. "That kind of Kosovozation is not going to lead us anywhere," he says. "You can't compare the situation in the Middle East and Israeli-Palestinian relations to the relationship between Yugoslavia and Kosovo. It's clear to everyone that the conflict has to be solved through dialogue. Now everyone agrees we need to focus on our efforts on stabilizing the cease-fire and pushisng the train forward so as to create the necessary momentum."

"I am a realist," he repeats throughout the interview. The utopian era is over. The jeans and sneakers he wore to his swearing-in ceremony when he took up his first elected post in 1983 as Hessen's minister of the environment, are gone. The result of participation in the federal government, with the constant need to choose between what's desirable and what's possible, can be seen in his response to a question about his opinion of the BBC's TV "Panorama," which ran a recent hour-long show on the question whether Prime Minister Ariel Sharon should be put on trial for the Sabra and Chatila massacres in Beirut in 1982. "I don't have to respond to that," he says laconically. He also refuses to comment on the judicial activism in Belgium where judges have begun trying international crimes. "Belgium is a member of the EU and Nato, so I don't want to comment on its domestic policies," he says. And when he's asked about his view, in principle, of putting international leaders on trial, accused of war crimes, he reveals a realpolitik position: We are interested in peace in the Middle East and it's important that the existing opportunity be exploited. Therefore there's no point in discussing other issues. That will lead in the wrong direction."