By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
In interviews today, officials in the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder declined to use the word embargo to describe its action. But the government has refused to act on planned weapons sales to Israel, effectively suspending them, and other European countries have taken similar actions, officials said.
The move signals a growing impatience with Israel in Europe. In recent days, the 15-country European Union has issued call after call for Israel to end its military offensive, to no discernible effect. Senior EU officials who flew to Israel last week to seek a settlement were denied access to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and stayed less than a day.
Holding up weapons sales is the first known sanction that Europe has applied to try to bring muscle to its words; officials are also talking about some other kind of trade restriction.
Israeli officials played down the action, but did not deny that weapons sales were not going forward.
"I can categorically say this is not an embargo," said Shimon Stein, Israel's ambassador to Germany, in a telephone interview. "There are some problems that need to be resolved and that is subject to ongoing discussion. We hope that we can overcome the difficulty."
The German press agency DPA reported, however, that the Israeli Defense Ministry had filed a letter of protest with the German government over its refusal to allow sales.
In 2000, the last year for which figures are available, Germany sold about $170 million in military equipment to Israel, including torpedoes and parts for tanks and armored cars.
The disclosure that Germany is blocking weapons sales followed meetings in Berlin last week between German officials and Dore Gold, foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel. The Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper described the meeting as "cool" and said that German officials labeled Gold "intransigent."
The government's frustration has begun to spill out of Schroeder's cabinet, whose members are usually circumspect in their statements on Israel.
"The occupation against the resolution of the U.N. Security Council, the adherence to the occupation, and the reports about the Israeli troops' conduct are shocking," Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Schroeder's minister of development aid, told German media.
German officials called for the early creation of a Palestinian state, followed by negotiations on key issues such as Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem and the final borders of Palestine. The Germans also called for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from positions they had seized in the current offensive.
In a significant change of mood in Germany, leading legislators from the center-right opposition have cast Israel as the aggressor and, in one case, employed language associated with the Nazis to describe the incursions into Palestinian territory.
In a widely publicized letter to the Israeli ambassador, Norbert Bluem, a labor minister under former chancellor Helmut Kohl, described the Israeli offensive as a "war of annihilation" -- the very term employed by Adolf Hitler to describe his 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union.
And Juergen Moellemann, deputy chairman of the right-of-center Free Democrats, a likely coalition partner in the next German government, said of Palestinian violence, "I would resist too, and use force to do so . . . not just in my country but in the aggressor's country as well."
Such language was once heard only in far-right and far-left circles here.
Some analysts view the political mainstreaming of anti-Israel sentiment as more than an immediate response to the crisis, and as a deeper expression of Germany's desire not to be shackled by history as the unified republic assumes a greater role on the world stage.
"There is no question there has been a shift," said Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin. "This is critical issue for Germany. They are trying to assert themselves: We are a European player and while we are mindful of history, we don't need to feel constrained by it."
"The current situation is the immediate trigger," said Stein. "But the Israeli issue is a symptom of something more fundamental. Since the end of the Cold War and unification [of East and West Germany], there has been an ongoing soul-searching, and we are the 'victims' of that. . . . There is a reexamination of the German role and, part and parcel of that, they are redefining their relations with us."
German cities have been the scene of recent demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinians. But what is unusual is that much of the strongest language is emanating from Christian Democrats, the bulwark of the pro-Israel policy of recent decades.
After World War II, the Christian Democratic government of Konrad Adenauer staked the restoration of Germany's reputation, in part, on good relations with Israel, and his successors in his party elevated a pro-Israel stance to something of an article of faith.
But Bluem said recently that it was now time to break the "taboo" of criticizing Israel.
In an interview, Karl Lamers, foreign policy spokesman for the Christian Democrats in Parliament, said: "Not in spite of our special responsibility to Israel's security, but because of it, we should not say 'yes' to everything that happens. This policy of the present Israeli government could lead to a catastrophe, first for Israel, but then for the region and the West.
"Germany used to not look out beyond Europe," he added, "but it must now."
The opposition's candidate for chancellor in national elections this September took a more traditional line during a recent interview with American journalists.
"The sovereignty, the right of Israel to exist, is unimpeachable, and that includes the right to life without terror," said Edmund Stoiber, governor of Bavaria state and leader of the Christian Social Union, the Christian Democrats' sister party in Bavaria. "Therefore, we do not confuse, as others do, cause and effect."