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For German-Israeli Relations, New Foreign Minister Heralds Four Very Difficult Years

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A papier mache caricature depicting Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Martin Schulz is pictured during preparations for the upcoming Rose Monday carnival parade in Mainz, Germany, February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski
A papier mache caricature depicting Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Martin Schulz is pictured during preparations for the upcoming Rose Monday carnival parade in Mainz, Germany, February 6, 2018.Credit: \ RALPH ORLOWSKI/ REUTERS

At first, the politician himself is very coy about his personal future: “This will all still be discussed and decided in our political boards in coming weeks, a tight-lipped Martin Schulz, the leader of Germany’s Social Democratic party, said on Wednesday morning, when journalists first questioned him about whether or not he will become the country’s next foreign minister.

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It was an awkward response to one of the most heatedly debated political questions in Germany in recent weeks. But it is also very telling and typical for the Martin Schulz of the days since the election and the almost tragic figure he has cut in the past four months. The 62-year-old former president of the European parliament speaks five languages fluently, but recently it seemed he could barely reach Germans in any language. As a result, he has completely given up his frank and from-the-heart style of speaking, a demeanor that once made him a real threat to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Schulz’ personal approval ratings – much like polls for his Social Democrats party - have plummeted so dramatically recently, that he has become calculated in just about every word he says. There is no a small number of articles in German newspapers that claim that the duplicity and insidiousness of the Berlin republic have actually broken him.

(L-R) Horst Seehofer, leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), German Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and Martin SchulzCredit: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP

On Wednesday morning, when asked about his future, Schulz had just come out of a 24-hour marathon negotiation about the new German government coalition. Merkel left the place in a car without even giving the press a comment. “We’d all like to get a shower first,” another prominent negotiator said jokingly. But for Schulz, the SPD leader, things are not that simple. Since he claimed on election night that “he will never work in a cabinet under Angela Merkel” and then led his party into yet another Grand Coalition agreement with that very Chancellor Merkel, questions about his personal future are on tops of Germans’ minds.

A few hours later, after he too presumably showered and found a fresh suit, Schulz finally confirmed that as part of his deal with Merkel he is all but set to be sworn in as Germany’s foreign minister. For Israeli-German relations, this could be the start of four very difficult years. In fact, for Israeli diplomats, Schulz may be the worst outcome of the four-months-long dramatic German search for a new coalition government.

Despite the circumstances, just the fact that Schulz is headed for the Germany's top diplomatic post should not come as a complete surprise, now that the coalition treaty between his SPD party and Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is done.

Traditionally, in Germany, the party leader of the junior coalition partner in assumes the role of the foreign minister. The ministry is considered the most prestigious of portfolios in Germany, only topped by the chancellery itself. It is the second most powerful position in the cabinet and provides a solid powerbase for any incumbent: A foreign minister’s approval and popularity rating among voters are usually significantly higher than any politician in the country. In addition, Schulz is much more qualified for the post than his three immediate predecessors, who were also SPD politicians, but had never worked in an international or diplomatic role before. In his former position as president of the European parliament, Schulz hosted many heads of state, including Shimon Peres in 2003, and gained rich international experience. At a professional level, Schulz is actually a good choice.

But the last four months since the elections have transported Martin Schulz into a difficult position within his party and have made the former favorite highly unpopular with his base. In recent polls, the Social Democrats have plummeted to 18 percent, an all-time low. In fact, many observers in Berlin say that the new role as foreign minister might be Schulz’s last and only chance of political survival.

Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestinian?

Head of German Social Democratic party (SPD) Martin Schulz speaks during a joint press conference on February 7, 2018 at the party's headquarters in Berlin Credit: KAY NIETFELD/AFP

One position many expect Schulz to take as part of his new role as a foreign minister being a tough critic of Israel, particularly in regards to its settlement policies and the human rights situation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. This tougher stance was already on display in the rhetoric voiced during the recent visit to Israel by Germany's current foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, also an SPD politician.

With Schulz in charge, this tone will likely become even more critical. Before he can even move into the foreign office’s iconic building located at Berlin’s Werderscher Markt, he must first persuade his own party members to vote for the new coalition agreement reached with Merkel. Moreover, to do so he must win over the very vocal and powerful left-wing of the Social Democrats - traditionally pro-Palestinian and highly critical of Israel. If this bloc of the SPD vetoes the coalition treaty in the coming days, both Schulz’s career and his party’s fate will be in complete jeopardy. Such a veto would also be the end of Merkel's current government and could plunge Germany into its deepest political crisis since 1951. So the stakes are very high and criticism of Israel an easy tool to win over much-needed support.

Two occasions from Schulz time as president of the European parliament supply a hint at how this critical stance on Israel could play out with him as a foreign minister.

In February 2014, when he addressed the Knesset he questioned Israel’s water policy regarding the Palestinians, triggering a walkout by the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party. For the second time, when he tweeted out that Mahmoud Abbas’ 2016 appearance in front of the EU parliament was “an inspiring speech!" Abbas had used the stage to erroneously claim that Israeli rabbis demanded the government poison Palestinian water supplies. Both times, his comments proved to be highly controversial, even within Germany, prompting an enraged opinion piece by the Israeli ambassador at the time in one of Germany's largest newspapers. Despite all the anger they caused, the comments pleased the left-wing of the SPD.

It would be a gross mistake, however, to take these comments as being based in anti-Semitism or even a desire to appeal to anti-Semites. Despite what some may believe, in it has never been germane for the German left to strongly speak out and take action against anti-Semitism, while at the same time supporting Palestinians.

In fact, largely due to Martin Schulz’s efforts and influence, the new coalition treaty being signed between his Social Democrats and Merkel’s party actually takes a very robust position against anti-Semitism. For the first time ever, for instance, Germany will appoint a designated representative to deal exclusivity with the fight against anti-Semitism, something that Jewish organizations have long asked for. This official will also receive funding “to promote Jewish life, culture, and communities in Germany," according to the latest draft of the coalition treaty. Holocaust remembrance programs receive two whole pages in the coalition treaty, with plans and funding for new and renewed programs clearly lined out. One of these is a program for teenagers called “Youth Remembers”, which seems to largely aimed at the large number of Muslim teenagers that have immigrated to Germany as refugees. That is a topic particularly close to Schulz’s heart.

He famously spoke out against Palestinian anti-Semitism during interview during the campaign, saying that “some of the young Palestinian men that come to us have been raised anti-Semitic by their families. To these people we must say very clearly: you only have a place here, if you accept that Germany is a country that will protect Israel.” That principle is naturally also noted in the new coalition treaty.

It will be interesting to see how Schulz and the Social Democratic leadership priorities this balancing act between calling Israel out Israel and fighting against anti-Semitism in Germany in the coming months.