Tensions Between Israel and Germany Intensify Over Critical UNESCO Resolution

Foreign Ministry officials accuse Berlin of pushing for a compromise with Arab states that allows EU countries to not oppose the resolution

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel address a news conference at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, February 16, 2016.
FABRIZIO BENSCH/REUTERS

Israel’s highly tense relations with Germany over Jerusalem’s stance on the Palestinians have deteriorated further, with Foreign Ministry officials saying Germany has not helped foil an anti-Israel resolution in UNESCO’s executive committee.

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The officials accuse Germany of making every effort to reach a compromise with Arab nations that EU countries would not have to vote against the resolution when the vote takes place on Tuesday.

A senior Foreign Ministry official who requested anonymity said that last week, Alon Ushpiz, the ministry’s deputy director general for diplomacy, had a very tough talk with the German ambassador to Israel, Clemens von Goetze. During the conversation, Ushpiz roundly protested Germany’s conduct over the UNESCO resolution.

The talk took place two days after last week’s crisis over the cancellation of the meeting in Jerusalem between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. In the talk between Ushpiz and Goetze, the subject of the canceled meeting also came up – in a conversation that became acrimonious and included mutual accusations.

A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Emmanuel Nahshon, declined to comment and the German Embassy also did not provide a response.

On Tuesday, Independence Day in Israel, UNESCO’s executive committee will vote on the subject of Jerusalem. Unlike previous UNESCO resolutions that ignored the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount and even cast doubt on Jews’ connection to the Western Wall, the current resolution takes a much softer approach. This stems from an agreement with the Palestinians and the Arab countries that the EU ambassador to UNESCO reached with German support and encouragement.

The Palestinians and Arab states agreed to concessions, notably the elimination from the resolution of any mention of the Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Noble Sanctuary, the Muslim term for the Temple Mount. The portions removed from the resolution are those that had angered Israel and led it to suspend cooperation with UNESCO. In addition, a sentence was added stating that Jerusalem is important to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Despite the significant softening of the language, Israeli officials were not pleased. First, they said the resolution remains political in character and still includes criticism of Israel. The resolution still defines Israel as an occupying power regarding everything pertaining to Jerusalem.

It does not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, and it is critical of Israeli archaeological digs in the east of the city and around the Old City. It is also critical of the situation in the Gaza Strip and Israel’s conduct at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem.

A second and perhaps more significant reason for Israel’s anger was that the deal includes a quid pro quo: the decision by all 11 EU member states on the UNESCO executive committee to either abstain or support the resolution in Tuesday’s vote, but not vote against it. Under such circumstances, the number of countries voting against the resolution would be reduced greatly and the resolution would be largely legitimized.

Foreign Ministry officials noted that Israel had believed that, as with all the previous resolutions, Germany would oppose any anti-Israel resolution however worded and would help Israel mobilize other European countries to vote against. But instead, the Germans pushed for a compromise with the Arab states and a European consensus that dramatically reduced Israel’s maneuver room before the vote.

In the conversation between Ushpiz and Goetze, and in contacts between other Israeli and German diplomats, the Germans said the process they were leading was meant to help Israel since the resolution had been significantly softened. According to a Foreign Ministry official, Israel replied that the fact that the resolution was less bad than it could have been was no consolation.

“If there’s no room for politics at UNESCO then there’s no room for politics,” a Foreign Ministry official said, citing Israel’s message to the Germans. He said this message went on to ask: “Why are you cooperating with a political resolution and why are you aiding a European consensus around this resolution?”

Israeli diplomats noted that the German move began even before the crisis surrounding Gabriel’s visit to Israel. Still, they noted that the confrontation between Netanyahu and Gabriel over the German’s plans for a meeting with left-wing group Breaking the Silence made it that much harder to convince the Germans to stop working for a compromise with the Arab countries at UNESCO.

“We realized over the past several days that our ability to use Germany to help us diplomatically was not at its peak,” an Israeli diplomat said.

On Friday, Germany’s most widely circulated newspaper, Bild, published an interview with Netanyahu on the crisis over the cancellation of the meeting with Gabriel. Netanyahu said Gabriel’s meeting with representatives of left-wing groups B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence during his Israeli visit showed a lack of sensitivity. Netanyahu said he believed that his refusal to meet with Gabriel would not harm relations between the two countries.

Netanyahu told Bild it was particularly insensitive to hold the meetings as Israel was marking Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day. He said the Israeli army was the only force protecting the people.

Netanyahu said he had tried to call Gabriel to explain his position and iron out their differences, but Gabriel refused to take his call. Despite the incident, relations between the two countries would remain strong based on the shared values between the two peoples, Netanyahu said.

He also expressed the hope that the next time Gabriel came to Israel, the foreign minister would meet with him rather than with what he called extremist and marginal groups that are undermining Israel’s security.

For her part, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has backed Gabriel’s decision to meet with civil society groups in Israel. Over the weekend, she said she had been in close contact with Gabriel during his visit, but added that the incident would have no effect on Germany’s support for Israel.