Israeli Trade Minister Reacts to International Criticism

Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, 74, Israel's trade minister and a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, discusses the massive criticism of his country following the Israeli army's deadly raid of the pro-Gaza flotilla and recent setbacks in relations between Germany and Israel.

SPIEGEL: Since the raiding of the pro-Gaza flotilla, in which nine people were killed, Israel has been the focus of harsh international criticism. Do you take this criticism seriously?

Ben-Eliezer: I take it very seriously. Firstly since it has lost all proportion and secondly because it works: Every day a new country is joining the anti-Israeli camp.

SPIEGEL: Was the raid a mistake?

Ben-Eliezer: We walked into a trap. The so called "peace flotilla" was a planned provocation by mercenaries of the "axis of evil". In retrospect, it was a mistake to storm the ships in international waters, although we were allowed to do so.

SPIEGEL: The international community views that differently. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of "state terrorism".

Ben-Eliezer: I know Erdogan well. I draw a clear distinction between the relationship amongst countries and those between people. While people can get upset with each other, between countries you must be pragmatic. Turkey has a strategic significance for Israel. Therefore, we have to sustain our relations with Ankara at any price. Erdogan has so far made a strategic decision in favor of Iran and Syria and against Israel, but we should leave the door open for his return.

SPIEGEL: Why did your government reject an international investigation?

Ben-Eliezer: I am not the right person to ask, since I spoke in the cabinet in favor of an international committee, even if it is led by the United Nations. I am confident that the national commission that we set up will work seriously. On the other hand, we raise the suspicion that we have something to hide. But the more I learned about the facts of the operation, the more evident it became to me that we have nothing to be worried about.

Israel Has to Return to the Negotiating Table

SPIEGEL: Were you surprised that even the chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, sharply criticized Israel?

Ben-Eliezer: It is surely painful to hear such criticism. We are talking about one of the best friends of the state of Israel. Merkel is a leader who means what she says. And she is sincere in her intentions towards us. And we have shown this week our goodwill by easing the blockade over Gaza.

SPIEGEL: Merkel expects Israel to make bigger efforts in the peace process.

Ben-Eliezer: Rightfully so. I think that the diplomatic standstill is the reason for all our problems today. But don't forget that Netanyahu was elected by the Israeli right wing. We in the Labor Party have pushed him and his Likud Party in the coalition into two concessions: accepting the two-state solution and freezing the building in settlements. Now we have to return to the negotiating table.

SPIEGEL: The negotiations over the release of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit are also a strain in Israeli-German relations. The efforts of the German intelligence service, the BND, hit a dead end after Israel rejected a proposal for a prisoner exchange half a year ago.

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