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Chancellor hails reset of ties after horrors of Holocaust

Merkel in Jerusalem: We are in ‘decisive weeks’ for Iran nuclear talks

Bennett pledges to keep Tehran from bomb, says he is pragmatic on Palestinians; German leader says Israel’s security will always be of ‘central importance,’ urges 2-state solution

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks as she attends a cabinet meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021. (Menahem Kahana/Pool Photo via AP)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks as she attends a cabinet meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021. (Menahem Kahana/Pool Photo via AP)

During a joint press conference Sunday alongside Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that negotiations over the return to the nuclear deal have entered “very decisive weeks.”

She stressed that every day that goes by without an agreement, Iran continues to enrich uranium.

Merkel, who is making a farewell visit to Israel after 16 years as chancellor marked by warm relations with the Jewish state, called for greater involvement by world powers in pushing Iran back to the negotiating table in Vienna.

“I see a responsibility for Russia and China here,” she said, adding that Israel’s security will be a top priority for “every German government.”

Negotiators from the US and the European parties to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal are still waiting for Iran’s hardline president Ebrahim Raisi to return to talks in Vienna, suspended since June.

“I never considered the JCPOA to be ideal, but it’s better than having no agreement,” Merkel noted.

At the press conference and at a special cabinet meeting with Merkel beforehand, Bennett underscored the danger that Iran’s nuclear program poses to the world, and pledged that Israel would do what it takes to stop Tehran from reaching nuclear weapons capability.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, give a joint press conference following a cabinet meeting at the King David Hotel, in Jerusalem, Oct. 10, 2021. (Menahem Kahana/Pool via AP)

“Iran’s nuclear program is a most advanced point ever,” said Bennett at the outset of the special cabinet meeting at King David Hotel in Jerusalem. “The world waits, the Iranians delay, and the centrifuges spin.”

“A nuclear weapon in the hands of such a radical, violent regime will change the face of the region and of the world,” Bennett continued. “For us, it is not a strategic problem. It is an existential problem.”

Bennett said that over the last three years, Iran has made “a giant leap forward in its ability to enrich uranium.”

At the press conference after the cabinet meeting, Bennett argued that “accepting Iran becoming a state on the brink of nuclear capability will become a moral stain on the free world, and what’s more, it will threaten world peace.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a special cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, October 10, 2021 (Amos Ben Gershom GPO)

Bennett pointed out that Iran, without a nuclear weapon, already supports armed proxy groups across the Middle East: “One can only imagine the damage they will cause if the world knows that behind this thuggery stands a nuclear weapon as well.”

The Iranians interpret Western attempts at reconciliation as weakness, he continued, insisting that Tehran is playing for time in order to continue to enrich uranium and undermine regional stability.

“This is a critical point, and Germany’s position is especially important.”

Kosovo artist Alkent Pozhegu works on the final touches of an image made with grain and seed, depicting the portrait of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in the town of Gjakova on September 26, 2021. (Photo by Armend NIMANI / AFP)

Merkel and Bennett disagreed publicly over a future Palestinian state.

“I think that on this point, even if at this stage it seems almost hopeless, the idea of a two-state solution should not be taken off the table, it should not be buried … and that the Palestinians should be able to live securely in a state,” Merkel said at their press conference. She also said that Israeli settlement construction in territories sought by the Palestinians was unhelpful.

“We are not ignoring the Palestinians,” said Bennett. “They are our neighbors. They’re not going anywhere, we’re not going anywhere.”

“At the same time, we have learned from experience that a Palestinian state means that it is highly likely that a terror state will emerge seven minutes away from my own house…I am a very pragmatic person. We are undertaking a series of actions on the ground in order to make things easier for everyone, for Jews, for Arabs, in Judea and Samaria, and in Gaza,” he said, using a term for the West Bank.

Merkel joined the special cabinet meeting after a morning one-on-one meeting with Bennett.

There were no plans for Merkel to meet former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is now Israel’s opposition leader. She also was not scheduled to meet with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank.

Merkel, who is currently leading a caretaker government following national elections until a new government is formed, will also visit Yad Vashem and meet Israeli high-tech leaders and entrepreneurs.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R) meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, October 10, 2021 ((Amos Ben Gershom, GPO)

The 67-year-old trained physicist is also to receive an honorary doctorate from Haifa’s Technion — Israel Institute of Technology.

At a joint statement before their private meeting, Bennett called Merkel “a dear friend of Israel,” and insisted that under Germany’s outgoing leader, ties between the two nations are ties were stronger than they had ever been.

“We are looking forward to strengthening them even more, in business, science, education, health, and of course in security,” said Bennett.

Bennett did not mention the Holocaust explicitly during the initial joint statements at the King David Hotel, but did say that “we certainly remember history, and look with optimism toward a better future.”

Bennett added that Merkel’s leadership has “paved the way for Germany’s continuing commitment to Israel’s security, which we value greatly.”

As he often does, Bennett spoke about the makeup of his ideologically unwieldy coalition, calling it “the most diverse government in Israel’s history.”

“We have right and left, Jews and Muslims, religious and secular, and it works. We are getting along together quite well,” he said.

Bennett also noted that there were eight female ministers — the most ever in an Israeli government — adding: “I think that this is one of the reasons it works well.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at Ben Gurion Airporty on her farewell visit to Israel, on October 9, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/Foreign Ministry)

Merkel responded by highlighting the work during her 16-year tenure to strengthen the bilateral relationship and ensure Israel’s security.

“I want to use this opportunity to emphasize that the topic of Israel’s security will always be of central importance and a central topic of every German government,” Merkel emphasized.

Turning to the Holocaust, she said she considers it “a stroke of good fortune given to us by history that after the crimes against humanity of the Shoah, it has been possible to reset and to reestablish relations between Germany and Israel to the extent that we have done.”

She also referenced Bennett’s coalition and the ongoing negotiations in Germany for the formation of a government in the wake of recent elections, saying that “compared with your government, a German coalition government seems a very simple matter.”

The chancellor was originally slated to visit Israel in late August, but canceled amid the upheaval surrounding the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Kabul airport attack. Germany was among the countries scrambling to evacuate from Kabul their own nationals and Afghans who helped their forces during a nearly two-decade deployment in the country.

AFP contributed to this report. 

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