Swap boosts Berlin’s Mideast role
29 January 2004
BERLIN – Germany’s increasing role in the Middle East was bolstered by Thursday’s Israeli-Hezbollah prisoner swap brokered by Berlin after years of tough negotiations.
The prisoner exchange, however, came as another Palestinian suicide bomber killed himself and 10 other people in a blast in a crowded commuter bus in Jerusalem.
Under the deal by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s intelligence services coordinator, Ernst Uhrlau, a German air force jet flew a kidnapped Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers from Beirut to an airport near Cologne, Germany.
A second Luftwaffe jet brought more than 30 of the over 400 prisoners to be released by Israel to Cologne for repatriation to Lebanon and other countries. The remaining prisoners were being released on Israel’s border to Palestinian territories.
The deal mirrors a similar swap between Israel and the Hezbollah arranged under former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1996 in which Israel released prisoners for the return of bodies of its soldiers.
However, Thursday’s exchange was the first such deal to take place on German territory.
“German engagement has grown in the Middle East,” said Frank Umbach, a security expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
Umbach said this was partly due to Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer’s intense interest in the region and partly a response to the 11 September attacks which showed how swiftly Mideast problems could impact on the rest of the world.
More broadly, analysts say Germany has sought a bigger international role since the 1990 German reunification. Schroeder speaks of Berlin becoming a medium-sized global power to match its economy which is the third biggest in the world after the US and Japan.
While noting Germany’s clout in the Middle East should not be overestimated, Umbach stressed Berlin did have a special status in the region.
“Germany can play a mediating role because it is trusted by both sides,” he said, adding this was not always the case for the United States.
Building up this trust has a long history.
Given the Holocaust, Germany’s ties with Israel will always have an underlying tension.
But Germany has done everything possible to win over the Jewish state since the 1950s. In addition to paying over EUR 80 100 billion in Holocaust compensation, the former West German government also secretly supplied arms to Israel since the 1960s.
Berlin has been a staunch backer of Israel and on the eve of Thursday’s prisoner transfer, Fischer made an impassioned speech at an anti-Semitism conference in Berlin organised by his Greens party.
Recognizing Israel’s right to exist is a prerequisite for resolving the Mideast conflict, declared Fischer.
Chaim Avraham, the father of one of the dead Israeli soldiers returned under the exchange, praised Fischer’s role in winning the deal and thanked the minister for visiting families of the missing soldiers.
“The German government has performed a great service and provided big humanitarian help,” said Avraham in an interview with Germany’s Juedische Allgemeine newspaper where he noted this contrasted with inaction by the United Nations and Amnesty International.
German ties with Arab states, the Palestinians and Iran have also been cultivated over the past decades.
Fischer’s credibility with Arab leaders is enhanced by his attendance of a 1969 Palestine Liberation Organisation conference in Algiers as a young radical.
As foreign minister since 1998 he has been a regular Mideast visitor and has frequently sought to mediate between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli leaders.
Germany has backed a policy of engagement with Iran and Fischer played a leading role in the visit of European Union foreign ministers to Teheran last year which led to Iran’s pledge to come clean on its nuclear programme.
Officials in Berlin, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Iran had played a key role in getting the prisoner exchange to go ahead with Teheran putting pressure on Hezbollah, to which it has close ties.
Umbach said Iran apparently wanted to send a positive message to the EU and possibly to the United States by helping facilitate the prisoner deal.
Not included in Thursday’s exchange deal is Israeli aviator Ron Arad who has become a legend in Israel since he went missing after being shot down over Lebanon in 1986.
German intelligence coordinator Uhrlau vowed he was not giving up on Arad.
In an interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit, Uhrlau said he expected to resolve Arad’s fate “within the next two or three months” and held out the prospect of a second prisoner exchange between Israel and Hezbollah.
“We have reached a milestone but not the final goal. The humanitarian question of Ron Arad remains the most important question,” said Uhrlau.
Subject: German news