Sven Becker and Christoph Schult
A dispute is brewing in the German-Israeli Association over a fundamental question: How openly should German politicians be allowed to criticize the policies of the Jewish state?
Dirk Niebel, a member of Germany’s pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), isn’t known for his reticence. But when it comes to criticizing Israel, Niebel, who spent a year living in a kibbutz as a young man, has always been cautious. As a sign of his solidarity, he became vice-president of the German-Israeli Association (DIG), a staunchly pro-Israeli group, in 2000. It was a close relationship, at least until last year.
As Germany’s Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, he had planned a trip to the Gaza Strip last June to tour a sewage treatment plant in Palestinian territory funded by the German government. When the Israelis denied him access to the plant, Niebel referred to the decision as a “major foreign policy mistake.” In the heat of the moment, he added that “time is running out” for Israel.
The loudest criticism of his undiplomatic statement did not come from Jerusalem, but from the home front, namely from several fellow members of the DIG. “Niebel should have known that Israel, given the tense situation, has little understanding for demonstrative visits, no matter how well-intentioned,” chided DIG officials Claudia Korenke and Jochen Feilcke.
Since then there has been a fundamental dispute among Israel supporters over the direction of their movement, a dispute fraught with insults and accusations. It revolves around power, positions and the question of how much criticism of Israel’s policy should be allowed among its friends.
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