‘Now is the time to make sure that Iran really gets the message’

An interview with Germany’s Ambassador to Israel Steffen Seibert.

By Amichai Stein | | Topics: Iran, Germany
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at his office in Berlin, Germany, March 16, 2023. Photo by Haim Zach/GPO
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at his office in Berlin, Germany, March 16, 2023. Photo by Haim Zach/GPO

In the aftermath of Iran’s unprecedented attack on the Jewish state over the weekend, JNS sat down for an interview with German Ambassador to Israel Steffen Seibert to discuss Berlin’s stance on the matter, and on Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza.

 

What is Germanys stance regarding a possible Israeli retaliation against Iran:

Steffen Seibert: As our chancellor and foreign minister have made clear: We condemn the Iranian attack in the strongest possible terms. To terrorize the people in Israel with hundreds of killer drones and missiles is a ruthless act. Iran thus took the risk of plunging an entire region into chaos.

I am glad that Israel has proven…that it is able to defend its citizens against such an attack. And it was particularly impressive to see how the United States and other partners have stepped up to the occasion and helped Israel counter this aggression. I think there is a lesson to be learned here: Israel’s security does not only stem from its own military might, but also from the strength and reliability of its partners, outside the region and inside.

So to keep building these political and diplomatic alliances, also with moderate Arab partners, means building a better security architecture for Israel. And I hope that Israel’s leaders keep this in mind as they consider their next steps.

 

What will change now in the world’s attitude towards Iran?

A: We have seen for a long time how Iran has been supporting and inciting actors all over the region against Israel. We see Iran’s fingerprints on many of their hostile actions. Now is the time to make sure that Iran really gets the message of this past weekend.

There must be no repeat of any such aggression in the future. Like our international partners we are working around the clock to avoid further escalation in the region, which is in nobody`s interest. We call on everybody in the region to act responsibly.

 

How would you describe Israel-Germany relations these days?

A: It is a close friendship in very tense and painful times. We felt very strongly on Oct. 7 the deep trauma that has been caused by Hamas’s atrocities. We feel very strongly about the situation of the hostages. There are German citizens among the hostages, too. I meet their families regularly and feel very close to them.

We demand all of the hostages be released as soon as possible. Hamas has the responsibility to just let them go. We also want Israel to come out of this terrible time more secure. We understand that this security has to do with the military fight against Hamas, which is why we stand with Israel in its fight with that terrorist organization. There is a military task, but there is also a huge political task ahead of Israel, and of course of those Palestinians that want peace and a sovereign state next to Israel.

 

Is there a need for an immediate ceasefire even without a hostage deal?

A: I repeat: The hostages must be released as soon as possible. Taking them was a horrendous crime and I think there is nothing more important than their release. We are strongly advocating a humanitarian ceasefire for the hostages to come out, and for much more aid to go in to help the suffering civilian population of Gaza. This is important also for Israel’s standing in the international community. So we’re happy that now new crossings will be opened, that the number of lorries that go in every day has gone up. This needs to be continued. This needs to become a long-term trend.

 

Does Germany think Israel is abiding to international law?

A: Our Israeli friends have told us and the world which principles guide them. Of course this has to be proven every day in the arena of military operations. Obviously, we saw terrible incidents, like the killing of the World Central Kitchen employees, that raised questions, which have to be investigated, and measures have to be taken to make sure tragedies like that won’t happen again. I think this is the Israeli approach, but it has to be proven on the ground, every single day.

Of course Hamas does not feel bound by things like international humanitarian law. But Hamas is a terror organization of the worst kind. Israel is a state of law, is a liberal democracy. So obviously, the world rightly expects more of Israel than it expects of Hamas. Hamas does not have the interests or the well-being of their own population in mind and do not display any kind of humanitarian behavior.

 

How surprised was Germany when it was brought to trial [in the International Court of Justice] by Nicaragua for assisting Israel?

A: Well, I don’t know about surprise, but you saw that we used the court hearing last week to explain our legal position on this, and I think we refuted the Nicaraguan arguments one after the other. We are convinced that Nicaragua’s accusations are not based on a truthful and accurate view of what’s happening, and we made good use of the hearing to refute these accusations. Now the court will speak, and we have to wait for that.

 

Might this trial cause change to the German policy regarding weapons export to Israel?

A: Well, weapons exports in Germany are subject to a very strict regime. They are being allowed or not allowed case by case, according to very strict principles that we’ve had for many years. So every time there is a request for the export of weapons, we study very carefully the circumstances in the country and the region, the use of the weapons and the overall situation. And this is what we will continue to do.  One point for instance that came up in the hearing was the amount of  German weapon exports to Israel since Oct. 7. The German legal team explained that up to 98% of this comprised defensive goods such as protective vests, helmets, means of communication.

 

So there’s no change at this point, right?

A: We will stick to our  longstanding principles of allowing or not allowing weapons exports. We will look at the particular situation, at the kind of exports. So the German approach has not changed.

 

Has there been any progress toward finding a solution regarding Lebanon?

A: First of all, we understand that the situation of the evacuees is a very difficult one [Tens of thousands of Israelis have been evacuated from northern Israel due to near-daily attacks by the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah since Oct. 8]. It is terrible that the people from Rosh Hanikra, Kiryat Shmona, have not been able to return to their homes for over six months now. This is a horrible state of affairs and it needs to change. The question is what will allow them to come home safely? We plead for time for political and diplomatic solutions.

We think there is a very clear connection between what goes on in the north and what happens in Gaza. So maybe a point will be reached in Gaza where it will be easier to find diplomatic and political solutions also in the north. Germany is ready to help. It is absolutely clear that the Hezbollah units need to move farther away from the border, that there must be no direct threat to the people on the Israeli side. So we and many other European states, also the Americans, stand ready to help with this.

But until then, it is important to not escalate the situation into what might easily become a regional war. Especially after the attack of this last weekend, we call on Iran and its allies to refrain from any further aggression. All actors in the region should act wisely and contribute to de-escalation and political solutions.

 

Tell me, usually you know we hear criticism from the worldabout Israel policy and what’s going on. What is important to you that Israelis know about Germany’s position when it comes to the war?

A: We see the terror of Oct. 7 as what it was. It was a hate-driven attempt to threaten the existence of the State of Israel, it was murderous antisemitism with a dimension of murder, of brutality, of torture that the world had rarely seen. So we stand with you in your self-defense against Hamas. And self-defense means making sure that no such threat can come from Gaza, from Hamas, again.

Now, the question is first of all about the differentiation between Hamas terrorists and civilians living in Gaza. And of course, now, after over six months, with 32,000 or so people killed [according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry], the world looks very worried and full of concern at this situation, which is brought to each of us by television and the internet every single day.

It is very important that Israel shows to the world that it maintains this differentiation, that it fights Hamas and not the Palestinians in general. And I see the Israeli efforts here: allowing more aid into Gaza, trying to protect the civilian population, etc. But more, and this is what we’ve been saying for many weeks, more must be done. The situation is  desperate in most parts of Gaza. We need better deconfliction, which means that not only humanitarian aid gets inside, but that it can then also be distributed safely. We need a peaceful and secure horizon for the people of Gaza, a political plan for a better life after the war. And of course Hamas remains the biggest obstacle to a better life for Gazans.

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