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.
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.
Ben-Eliezer: The Germans did an excellent job, as always. I think it was a mistake to reject the offer. Since then the situation has developed to our disadvantage. Hamas is constantly raising the "price". We are ready to release about 1,000 terrorists tomorrow. We only demand that a small part of them will neither go to the Gaza Strip nor the West Bank. They should be expelled to other countries.
SPIEGEL: The hottest issue between Israel and Germany right now pertains to the alleged Mossad agent Uri Brodsky. An international search had been initiated by Germany and the man has now been arrested in Poland. He allegedly assisted another suspected Mossad agent, " Michael Bodenheimer," in obtaining a false German passport which was then used to get into Dubai to liquidate Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. Why does Israel object to Brodsky's extradition to Germany?
Ben-Eliezer: Because we don't think this person has any relation to this act.
SPIEGEL: German investigative authorities would hardly dare to issue an arrest warrant against an Israeli without having clear proof.
Ben-Eliezer: The person is only accused of having used a forged German passport.
SPIEGEL: He is accused of working as a foreign agent on German soil.
Ben-Eliezer: This must be proven and the court will decide whether or not this is true.
SPIEGEL: A German court?
Ben-Eliezer: That remains to be seen. It is our obligation to prevent his extradition. Any other state would do the same. If he needs to be placed before a court, we will see to it that that happens here in Israel. But even if he were ultimately to be put on trial in Germany, that would not have a negative effect on relations between our countries.