Merkel & Calmy-Rey: A Tale of Two Leaders

An op-ed by David A. Harris
Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee
New York, March 19, 2008

What a week!

Two European leaders made headlines. As it happened, both were women, born in the postwar era. Both led pathbreaking visits to the Middle East. But they couldn’t have struck a greater contrast.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Israel. It was not her first visit, but it was surely her most historic. She was accompanied by eight Cabinet ministers, an unprecedented number. She planned the visit in connection with the celebration of Israel’s sixtieth anniversary. And she left no doubt that Germany was committed to elevating its special relationship with Israel to a still higher level.

Her words could not have been clearer. In the Knesset and elsewhere, she spoke about Germany’s obligations and responsibilities. She spoke about Germany’s friendship and support. She spoke about the threats facing Israel, whether from Iran or Gaza, and Israel’s right of self-defense, not to mention Germany’s steadfast commitment to Israel’s security. And she spoke about planting the seeds for the future link between her country and Israel, in order to sustain the close ties built around not only the painful past but also a promising future.

Even sixty-three years after the war’s end, the visit of a German leader to Israel still awakens emotions and heightens sensitivities. How could it not? Chancellor Merkel fully understood both the risks and the opportunities. Impressively, she avoided the former and maximized the latter. And she did it in her characteristically understated manner. No razzle-dazzle, no hype. Yet, if anything, the understatement made the messenger” and her message” all the more powerful, for it came across as heartfelt, not manufactured for the occasion.

And, maybe, her well-honed instincts were shaped not only by the long shadow of the Shoah, but also by her own experience growing up in the inaptly named German Democratic Republic. There, she trained as a physicist, but she had another classroom as well. It was the daily lesson of totalitarianism, which has given her a moral clarity that serves her equally well in today’s Middle East. She is instinctively drawn to Israel as a free nation struggling not simply to survive, but to protect its value structure against those who would destroy it and against its enemies’ Western enablers, who, as during the Cold War, fail to grasp the fundamental distinctions between an open, democratic society like Israel and its ruthless adversaries.

Perhaps the photo that best captured the chancellor’s visit was at Yad Vashem, the museum and memorial to the Holocaust, where she bent down to lay a wreath. The image revealed what Chancellor Merkel knows full well that truly confronting the horrors of the past means being alert to the dangers of the present.

(Photo: Agence France-Presse)

By contrast, while the German leader was in Israel, Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey traveled to Iran.

The image that best captures her trip may be the picture that shows her laughing with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.


(Photo: Tages-Anzeiger)


Here is a top official of a full-throttled democracy, Switzerland, breaking ranks with her European colleagues to journey to Tehran in the wake of a third sanctions resolution against Iran adopted by the UN Security Council and after the International Atomic Energy Agency raised still more questions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Her goal? To witness the signing of a major gas deal between a Swiss energy giant and Iran.

The Swiss reply is that the trip broke no laws. True enough. There are no UN sanctions prohibiting travel to Tehran or, for that matter, signing energy deals.

But is the discussion just about laws?

At a time when key countries, including the United States, Britain, France and Germany, are leading the effort to isolate Iran for its violation of UN measures, “neutral” Switzerland decides to move ahead, essentially taking sides by conducting business as usual.

When major trading partners are being asked to rein in their economic links with Iran to demonstrate the cost of flouting the will of the international community, Switzerland decides to go forward.

And when democrats around the world seek to highlight the brutal repression of women, homosexuals, dissenters, and religious minorities in Iran, the Swiss foreign minister dons a headscarf that her hometown Tribune de Genève describes as “the veil of discord.”

What kind of a message does the Swiss visit send to Iranian leaders? The answer is all too clear. Tehran’s policy of “divide and conquer” can work. By exploiting the differences between Switzerland and fellow European democracies unwilling to make cordial trips to Tehran, Iran benefits.

In addition to citing its energy needs, Switzerland argues that dialogue that holiest of holies, for some can induce a change in Iranian behavior. Of course, dialogue has its place at certain times and in certain situations. But what kind of dialogue? The kind that demands nothing of the Iranians?

In the 1980s, the United States desperately wanted to sell wheat to the Soviet Union, where it was in chronically short supply because of Soviet inefficiencies. The talks took place in London. The lead U.S. negotiator had been instructed to find an opportunity during the talks to raise American concerns about the plight of Soviet Jews. During a break, he took aside his Soviet counterpart and mentioned the issue. The Soviet, surely prepared for the moment, feigned surprise before commenting (and here I am paraphrasing), “Does this mean you are cutting off these talks?” Taken aback, the American replied, “No, of course not, but I thought you ought to know how the American people feel about this issue.” “Then,” said the Soviet, “let’s get back to the room and talk about what brings us together here, wheat.” End of story.

Even if they raised nuclear matters or human rights issues, who is to believe that the Swiss made any more progress than the American negotiator in London? After all, the Iranians achieved their twin goals: the signing of the energy deal and the conferral of legitimacy by the foreign minister’s visit.

For a variety of reasons, I know Switzerland well. I also know the foreign minister. She is by no means an enemy of Israel or the Jewish people. But in this case, driven by economic objectives and perhaps political illusions, she made a mistake. And, let’s be clear, there will be a price for that error.

It’s best summed up in that picture. Did the Swiss foreign minister really want her visit to Iran to be memorialized by a photo of herself laughing with the Iranian president, a man who has repeatedly called for a world without Israel, who dismisses the Shoah, who supports terrorist groups that have killed Americans, Argentines, French and Israelis, and who stomps on the basic human rights of women, gays, students and journalists? But there she was. And while she might wish the photo’s disappearance, I suspect it will long be displayed in Ahmadinejad’s office.

Yes, it was quite a week. It was the best of visits, it was the worst of visits. It was, one might say, a tale of two leaders in two cities.

Reprinted with kindly permission of the American Jewish Committee.


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