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What will Merkel's new foreign minister mean for Israel?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and leader of the Social Democratic Party Martin Schulz have renewed their right-left coalition
John MACDOUGALL (AFP/File)
i24NEWS Germany correspondent Polina Garaev surveys Martin Schulz's record on the Middle East

Germany is set to get a new foreign minister, and he has a checkered history with Israel.

The current minister Sigmar Gabriel’s relations with the Israeli government have been strained and occasionally explosive, but Martin Schulz’s term will also unlikely to be scandal-free.

The veteran politician stepped aside as leader of the SPD party after thrashing out a hard-fought deal with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and said he wants the foreign affairs portfolio in the next government.

In Germany, Jewish community members view Schulz as a wild card.

They still remember how, as president of the European Parliament, he applauded Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech before the body in 2016, despite the fact that Abbas rehashed an anti-Semitic myth when claiming that Israeli rabbis had called on the government to poison Palestinian water sources.

In Israel, he is remembered for his 2014 speech in front of the Knesset, during which he alleged that Palestinians receive only 17 liters of water a day while Israeli citizens are proved with 70 liters. His remakes caused outrage among conservative lawmakers, who walked out of the plenum.

Kobi Gideon GPO

The unofficial explanation was that he simply did not check his facts, rather than trying to cause a provocation.

Schulz perhaps doesn’t share Gabriel’s blunt political style and flare for the dramatics, but his past inattention to details and Israel’s sensibilities might get him in hot water during his tenure.

During last year's election campaign he attempted to soothe the worries of Israel supporters, saying in a debate with Merkel that he acknowledges the “deeply rooted anti-Semitism” of Palestinian migrants to Germany. “To them we must clearly say: 'in this country you only have a place when you accept that Germany is a country that defends Israel.'”

Germany’s policy line under Schulz is also not expected to change. It will likely sync with the views outlined in the coalition agreement he signed as party leader -- which also continue the harsh tone coming from Berlin whenever Israel approves new construction in West Bank settlements.

"Israel's current settlement policies contradicts applicable international law and does not have our support," reads a passage of the coalition agreement, the first such document to explicitly condemn Israeli settlements.

The deal came shortly after a visit by the incumbent top German diplomat to Israel, in which he seemed to heal a rift with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu but warned that it was becoming hard to “justify” support for Israel to members of his own party.

Overcoming his demons

Odd ANDERSEN (AFP)

A high-school dropout who struggled with alcoholism, Schulz turned his life around and went on to open a book shop and become the youngest-ever mayor in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

He was elected to the European Parliament in 1994 and rose to become president of the EU's only elected body in 2012. Along the way, he taught himself five languages.

His struggles have shaped the man he is today, Schulz has said in the past.

"I believe I'm the only senior politician in Germany to openly admit my personal catastrophes," he once told Der Spiegel weekly.

Hours after clinching the pact with Merkel's conservatives on Wednesday, Schulz declared he was not the right person to lead the "process of renewal" his beleaguered party needed.

"I have tried to give the party strength and courage, but I can't do justice to the expectations," he said, tapping the SPD's parliamentary group leader Andrea Nahles as his replacement.

But the renewed tie-up with Merkel's conservatives is far from guaranteed, as Schulz has promised to give the SPD's 460,000 members the final say on whether to approve the coalition deal.

The referendum could be tight as many grassroots SPD voters are still fuming that Schulz backtracked on his pledge to go into opposition after leading the party to a historic low of 20.5 percent in September's election.

Polina Garaev is i24NEWS' Germany correspondent.

AFP contributed to this report.

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