"The Liberal Party of Germany - it's not what you think" is the simple message that Wolfgang Gerhardt wants to get across to the Israeli public. The former leader of the Free Democratic Party, Gerhardt now serves as leader of the Liberal Party in the Bundestag, and is believed to have the best chances to inherit Joschka Fischer's position as Berlin's foreign minister.
Gerhardt is due in Israel on Sunday as a guest of Tel Aviv University to lecture on "Trends in German Foreign Policy."
In an interview with Ha'aretz, he said that despite some rhetoric by other members of the party about Israel, "our position toward the citizens of Israel has not changed. We support Israel's right to exist; we have never allowed anyone to doubt that, and never will in the future. Because of German history, we feel a special commitment to the Jewish people."
Gerhardt is referring to two men who have made some critical statements about Israeli actions in the territories: Jamal Karsli, a legislator of Syrian origin who compared IDF actions to the Nazis and attacked "the influence of the Zionist lobby" in the world media, and FDP deputy chair Juergen Moellemann, who expressed understanding of the suicide bombers in Israel and claimed that the rhetoric of Michel Friedman, deputy chairman of the German Jewish Community, "is full of hate" and inspires anti-Semitism.
The Moellemann-Karsli controversy has become a major element of the German election campaign. "The taboo has been broken in Germany," say leading papers in Germany and the world. It's being claimed that since the unification of Germany, and particularly since Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has been in office, a new generation of Germans is refusing to continue being held hostage to the past, and the Holocaust has ceased being a cornerstone of German identity.
Schroeder attacked Moellemann and Karsli's comments as "most dangerous," warning it raised questions about the Liberal Party's position as senior coalition partner in the next government. Fischer warned the Liberals against "Haiderization" of the party, while Claudia Roth of the Greens demanded a police inquiry against Moellemann.
Gerhardt was the first of the Liberal Party leaders to speak out against Moellemann, who is considered Karsli's political patron. Gerhardt aggressively led the campaign to drive Karsli out of the party's institutions, both at the federal and local level, and pressed the party to find ways to reconcile with the Jewish community. "Karsli is no longer a member of the party, and does not speak for it," said Gerhardt.
As for Moellemann, "he made totally unacceptable remarks about Israel and Friedman, and the party condemned them in the most forceful fashion. He admitted his mistake and apologized to the Jews of Germany."
German Jewish community leaders, who met with the party leadership this week, refused to close the books on the controversy. Moellemann may have apologized to the community but he refused to apologize to Friedman, yet retains his high-ranking position in the party. Gerhardt said he believes "through democratic dialogue we will be able to overcome the differences."
To press home his party's pro-Jewish credentials, he mentioned its traditional position of support for Israel and how that was expressed by the leadership of people like Otto Graf Lambsdorf, who conducted the successful negotiations in 2000 for compensation for slave laborers, and former foreign ministers Hans Dietricht Genscher and Klaus Kinkel.
Political commentators say that due to the shockwaves resulting from the Karsli-Moellemann controversy, if the Liberal Party indeed returns to government, it will bend over backward to prove its friendship with Israel. Maybe that's why Gerhardt insisted on adding to the itinerary of his one-day trip to Israel a visit to the grave of Ignatz Bubis, the former German Jewish community leader. Bubis was an active member of the Liberal Party. He passed away in 1999 and is buried in Tel Aviv.
Gerhardt is certainly aware of a poll published in Der Spiegel showing that anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli positions are not popular in Germany. The poll showed that in many ways anti-Semitic trends in Germany have been in retreat in the last decade. That also may explain why the Liberals have lost 3 percent in the polls since the eruption of the Karsli-Moellemann controversy.
Some say the anti-Semitism controversy was a deliberate ploy by Moellemann to increase his party's popularity, but it boomeranged on him. Not does the attempt to win populist appeal with anti-Israeli rhetoric seem to be effective. Gerhardt is aware of this. The changes he has in mind for German foreign policy do not include the Middle East.
"Israeli citizens have the right to live in peace and security. The Palestinian terror attacks must stop," he says, adding in the same breath the other side of the equation: "The Palestinians have a right to a state of their own. It must be established on the basis of democracy and rule of law. Only thus will Israeli citizens be able to live in real security." Joschka Fischer couldn't have said it better.
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