German’s Future as Mideast Peace Broker Threatened

By Rainer Meyer

Published March 25, 2005, issue of March 25, 2005.
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BERLIN — No one would have guessed three decades ago that the radical tough who led left-wing gang attacks on police in Frankfurt would eventually become Germany’s foreign minister and a peacemaker respected around the world.

Joschka Fischer has been able to reinvent himself, though. Along the way he has become one of Europe’s leading politicians and the only European broker trusted and relied on both by Israelis and Palestinians.

Today, however, his political future is threatened by scandal — and so, by extension, is his role in the Middle East peace process. Germany’s conservative opposition is trying to drive the popular Fischer out of office, a move that might damage the fragile balance struck by the European Union on the peace process.

At issue are claims that the Foreign Ministry’s visa policy opened Germany’s borders to criminals from the former Soviet Union. One year ago, a judge ruled that the ministry was guilty of complicity in the case of a man who had sold 7,000 entry visas to Ukrainians.

Fischer, 56, leader of the Green Party, is not accused of personal involvement in the scandal. But he was slow to apologize for his ministry’s mistakes. And with every new detail that emerges, he continues to lose credibility in some circles.

If Fischer is forced to resign, it could have a major impact on E.U. foreign policy.

The peace process is a highly emotional topic across the continent. Without Fischer smoothing out the wildly conflicting views, European leaders on both sides might feel encouraged to take unilateral steps in favor of either the Israelis or the Palestinians, destroying the union’s laborious efforts to maintain a common foreign policy.

The E.U. is infamous for its clumsy foreign policy, and the Middle East is among the thorniest issues. The Scandinavian countries tend to side emotionally with the Palestinians. France leans toward the Arabs, largely out of concern for the reactions of its own Muslim minority. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi endorses Israel’s Prime Minister Sharon whenever possible. Fischer, liked and respected on all sides, often ends up mediating among the squabbling Europeans.

Even if the Europeans manage to stand together without Fischer, there is nobody whom Israeli and Palestinian leaders alike call one of their “greatest friends in Europe.”

His fate could be determined in the next few weeks. After months of dithering, Fischer recently agreed to testify soon in parliamentary hearings into the scandal over lax tourist visa rules that allegedly permitted hundreds of criminals and prostitutes to enter Germany from the former Soviet Union. His performance could determine his ability to survive calls for him to resign. With a sluggish economy threatening his government’s re-election prospects next year, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will be watching closely to see whether Fischer can recapture his popularity.

The affair erupted in February 2004, when a judge gave a lenient sentence to a convicted Ukrainian people smuggler. The judge accepted the defendant’s argument that his crimes had been facilitated by the eased Foreign Ministry rules, adopted in 2000 as part of a Green effort at diversity. In the months since, conservative commentators have raised a furor, charging that Germany has been flooded with Ukrainian criminals.

Government statistics show no actual rise in crime, but the furor has damaged Fischer’s reputation, toppling him as Germany’s most popular politician. The affair has caused alarm among the country’s Jews, 65% of whom have emigrated from Russia and Ukraine in the last 15 years. The right has been calling on Fischer to resign, something he has refused to consider.

If he resigned, it could spell the end of Germany’s most unusual political biography. A founder of the 1960s-era student radical movement, he dropped out of university in the late 1960s and went to work in an auto factory. Failing to organize a revolution, he quit and founded a street guerrilla group, participating in various violent clashes with police officers.

In the mid-1970s, tired of waiting for a worldwide revolution, Fischer retired from his street-fighting duties and worked as a cab driver until becoming active in Green Party politics in the early 1980s. Disliked by many of the party’s more button-down founders, he won control of a dissident group called the Realos (Realists).

Some observers say that Fischer ruined the Greens by expelling his opponents and making the rest his political toadies, but others insist he saved the party from factional collapse. Nominated to the party’s parliamentary slate in 1983, he was part of the first Green contingent to serve in the Bundestag. He gained attention by calling the speaker an “a—hole” — an insult never heard before in parliament. In 1985, he moved to the Hesse state legislature, joining the first-ever Social Democratic-Green coalition as environmental minister. He attended his swearing-in ceremony in jeans and sneakers.

When the Social Democratic-Green alliance won the Bundestag elections in 1998, the ex-street-fighter, ex-cab driver, ex-revolutionary became foreign minister of a country that has always been very anxious about its image abroad. But Fischer’s charm and human approach made him popular among colleagues, especially Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. He challenged his former left-wing allies by advocating German military intervention in Kosovo.

As foreign minister, Fischer immediately put the Israeli-Arab conflict at the top of his agenda. His own past as self-styled guerrilla and Third World sympathizer gave him ready access to Palestinians. At the same time, he developed a rapport with Israeli leaders, in part as a representative of the postwar generation of Germans who have vocally confronted the country’s Nazi past and proclaimed a moral responsibility to support Israel.

In June 2001, while he was visiting Israel, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 20 young Israelis at a disco in Tel Aviv. The second intifada was about to turn into a war. In a crucial move, however, Sharon, Israel’s new leader, decided to give Fischer a chance. The German foreign minister stayed in the region and launched several rounds of shuttle diplomacy. He persuaded Arafat to condemn terror and, even more importantly, to order a halt to attacks on Israeli targets. For several tense days, Fischer’s personal intervention kept up a fragile cease-fire, and every day it seemed that the terror could come to an end. When he left Israel, he sent a message to the parties to the conflict, saying that they could drop by his office anytime.

The window on that invitation could be closing soon.

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