BUDAPEST – German Foreign Minister Guido Westerelle said during a special address on Monday to the World Jewish Congress that his government’s position on the Syrian uprising was strongly influenced by Israel’s security interests.
“There’s no doubt that in the international community and Germany we want to overcome the atrocities of the regime of Assad and support free and democratic opposition in Syria,” he said during the speech, opening the second of the three-day plenary assembly. “But we do not want to act in a way that could have lethal weapons ending up in the wrong hands. So when we say we support the opposition in Syria, we mean the opposition that wants to live in a new democratic and tolerant Syria because some forces have announced in a clear way that they are close to Al-Qaida. Damascus for them is a stopover on the way to Jerusalem, and we need to be aware of this.”
Westerelle, who received a standing ovation following a powerful declaration of support for Israel and a strong denunciation of rising anti-Semitism in Europe, urged hundred of delegates attending the conference not to “underestimate the threat” of a violent flare-up in the whole region because of the conflict in Syria.
“So our first goal is to support a democratic new Syria and the people of Syria,” he said, “but second is to prevent any kind of conflagration, which also could be a serious threat to our friend and partner Israel. If we don’t balance both aspects, that’s not wise. That is the guideline of our policy.”
Although not specifically addressing events of recent days, the German foreign minister declared, “Israel has the legitimate right to defend itself.” He also said that Germany “cannot and will not accept an Iranian nuclear weapon.”
“Iran must now seriously engage to give the negotiation process a chance to succeed,” said Westerelle. “We will not accept talks for the sake of talks.”
Noting that Germany was “firmly committed to protecting and nourishing Jewish life in our societies and to countering anti-Semitism across the globe,” Westerelle said that “anti-Semitism has no place neither in Berlin nor in Budapest nor anywhere else in Europe or in the world.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban opened the WJC conference on Sunday night promising that acts of anti-Semitism would not be tolerated in his country any longer. But organization officials expressed disappointment with his address, which they said avoided any reference to the virulently anti-Semitic Jobbik party, the third largest party in the Hungarian parliament today, and promised little concrete action.
Westerelle called on European governments to invest more in Holocaust education and research and “to stand up against anti-Semitism when it comes along in a subtle way.” Combating anti-Semitism, he stressed, was not only about protecting Jews but also about preserving common values. “It is about standing up for democracy, for individual freedom, for human rights and for human dignity,” he said. “We are tolerant citizens. Tolerance is wise; tolerance in the face of intolerance is historic foolishness. At this meeting here in Budapest we stand together: For our values, for tolerance and against anti-Semitism.”
The German foreign minister said the bond between his country and Israel derived from more than just history. “We belong to the same community of values,” he stated. “Israel is the only sustainable and functioning democracy in the Middle East. We belong to the same community of values, the community of democrats.”
His identification with Israel, the German foreign minister recounted, was forged on his first visit to the country as a young student, when he climbed to the top of Mt. Tabor in the Galilee. It was then, he said, that “I realized just how small Israel is, and I came to understand what security means for Israel.”
At the same time, Westerelle urged Israel to renew negotiations on a peace treaty with the Palestinians, warning that the window of opportunity for a two-state solution was closing. “I know that a renewed commitment for peace requires courage and entails hard choices for both sides. But time is running out,” he said. “The longer the conflict takes, the harder it will become to reach a solution.”
He said recent political changes in the Arab world presented a “historic opportunity for Israel to live among democracies: The historic opportunity to make peace among free peoples. In my view, the response for Israel to this change should be a renewed commitment for peace.”
Nothing can guarantee Israel’s long-term security better, he said, “than peace with its neighbors and peace with the Palestinians.”