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What is Merkel's Mideast role in Trump-Putin era?

Against the backdrop of US President Donald Trump’s nationalistic policies, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is being viewed by many as the new leader of the free world and a future key player in the Middle East.
FILE PHOTO: German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a welcoming ceremony during the Group of 20 (G20) leaders summit in the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya, Turkey, November 15, 2015.  REUTERS/Murad Sezer/File Photo - RTX30909

Against the backdrop of US President Donald Trump’s conservative nationalistic policies, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is being described by the media as the new leader of the free world. Her open-minded and humanitarian views and policies on the immigration of Middle East refugees to Germany despite numerous terror attacks by Islamist terrorists in her country have gained respect in many liberal capitals in the world.

The international system appears to be split nowadays between nationalistic regimes and governments that cling to multiculturalism. The former makes opposition to Islamic immigration their political flag and an excuse for curtailing freedom of movement, free trade and globalization; the latter champions globalization and human rights. And so, Merkel has become an important player within the world’s most important schism.

A senior German official in the Kanzleramt in Berlin told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that despite this being an election year, Merkel will stick to her core conservative and liberal strategy: “Above all, the chancellor is the defender of the European Union’s integrity. She believes that world peace depends on this. She also believes in protecting the European Union from the separatist nationalistic policies of Russia, the US and European right-wing parties, principally those in the Netherlands and France.”

The senior official close to the chancellor listed Merkel's strategic priorities, starting with the integrity of the EU, including driving a hard bargain with the United Kingdom on the Brexit deal. The second priority is a sound European immigration policy. Then there is the issue of free global trade. The chancellor is wary of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to weaken the EU and NATO. She also prioritizes fighting Islamic terror in coordination with the United States and the pragmatic Arab countries. Merkel believes that the Iran deal should be upheld, and she also believes in a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, which will, in her view, help to stabilize the Middle Eastern region.

The German source explained that Merkel wishes to promote these policies within the context of the P5+1 framework (the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and China, together with Germany) that was established for the Iran deal negotiations. Such a framework, Merkel believes, could be especially useful in the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

In this context, the senior official outlined Merkel’s position. Above all, he said, is the special relationship Germany upholds with Israel in its historical context. Germany after the Holocaust considers having a special role in defending the Jewish state. The selling of strategic submarines to Israel is a key component of this policy.

A second position relates to the problems of Islamic terror in Germany, which turns fighting against the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda especially important. Germany has contributed 650 troops to the Mediterranean NATO effort to combat IS smuggling in the Mediterranean during 2017. The German government is an important player in developing EU’s security policies. In this context, Germany aims to maintain good relations with the pragmatic Arab countries, mainly Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.

Given terror, migration and Germany’s leading role in the EU, the Merkel government sees great importance in the stability of the Middle East. On this backdrop, Germany has a strong interest in a two-state solution based on UN Security Council resolutions. Both Merkel and her ministers have expressed this view on many occasions.

Last, despite the special relationship with Israel, Merkel is highly critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement policies in the West Bank. She has expressed sharp criticism in the past year against settlement expansion, such as on April 19, 2016, in a joint press conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The senior German official said that Merkel and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel will discuss these priorities with Trump and his administration. Merkel perceives Trump as very critical toward the EU and toward her immigration policies, yet she intends to negotiate a set of compromises with the US administration. At the same time, the Iran deal is of great importance to the Germans, given Germany’s vast trade potential with Iran.

He also said that Merkel would attempt to renew the P5+1 framework for the monitoring of the Iran agreement implementation and extend it to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Given the change of US-Middle East policies and a possible US-Russia rapprochement, Merkel may very well emerge as an important player in creating new international platforms and compromises on Middle Eastern issues, including on the Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution process.

Asked about these German positions, a senior Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs official dealing with EU relations expressed the Netanyahu government’s trust in the special relationship Israel maintains with Germany. He believes that, at the end of the day, Germany will stay out of Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution.

Still, with the recent changes in the international system, Jerusalem may be surprised by a future role for Berlin in the Middle East; one that will not necessarily toe the line with the Trump administration’s approach.

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