Touting strong friendship, Germany’s Merkel lands in Israel

Joint government meeting to celebrate 50 years of ties, but overshadowed by German criticism of settlement construction as ‘disruptive’ to peace process

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving in Jerusalem on February 24, 2014. (Sebastian Scheiner/AFP)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving in Jerusalem on February 24, 2014. (Sebastian Scheiner/AFP)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her cabinet landed Monday at Ben Gurion Airport for a two-day stay which will include a joint meeting of the two governments.

Netanyahu greeted Merkel in Jerusalem Monday night at a brief press conference. The two were scheduled to meet at the Prime Minister’s Residence afterward for a working dinner.

“We have come here with almost the whole of our new government and we wanted to show you in this way that this is indeed a very strong friendship,” Merkel said in German and relayed in English through a translator.

Merkel said Germany has been working with Israel “shoulder to shoulder” over the past five decades “to secure the future of the state of Israel.” She said that “part and parcel of the security of Israel is the two state solution…a Jewish state of Israel and alongside it a Palestinian state.”

Standing at her side Netanyahu said the US mediated peace talks, as well as international efforts to quell Iran’s nuclear program, would figure prominently in his meetings with Merkel.

Germany also belongs to a group of nations currently negotiating with Iran, Israel’s arch foe and a particular nemesis for Netanyahu.

“I would like to discuss ways to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons capability. I believe that this is the greatest challenge to the security of the world,” Netanyahu said.

He also said he wanted to discuss ways to advance peace efforts with the Palestinians.

“The people of Israel want peace, they want a real peace, they want a peace that ends the conflict that finally gets the Palestinians to recognize the Jewish state and one in which we have the necessary means of security to defend ourselves against any possible contingency in this turbulent Middle East,” Netanyahu said.

Merkel’s visit will include the largest bilateral government consultations in Israel’s history.

However, the trip, which officially kicks off the preparations for next year’s celebration of 50 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations, is being overshadowed by reports of the worst crisis in diplomatic ties since Merkel took office nearly 10 years ago.

The chancellor recently said that she would push for a two-state solution and support US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to restart the peace process during her meetings with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu is expected to blame loggerheads in peace talks on stubborn positions by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Channel 2 news reported Monday.

A joint cabinet meeting between the two governments is scheduled for Tuesday.

Ahead of the visit, Germany’s foreign minister on Monday heaped tough criticism on Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank, calling the construction “disruptive” to peace efforts and saying it would be raised during two days of meetings with Israeli leaders.

US-mediated peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians will be a main focus in meetings, and German opposition to settlement construction will be raised, Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement.

“We’ll discuss where things stand on the peace process and will try to find out what the obstacles are that prevent a solution,” he said. “The settlement policy clearly remains among those obstacles and this will of course be raised. We said clearly in the past that we don’t just consider decisions to expand settlements as unhelpful, but as disruptive of peace efforts, and of course we will discuss this during our visit,” he said.

Germany is Israel’s closest ally in Europe. Tensions have been on the rise lately between Israel and Europe, and also with Germany, over settlement policies.

Israel says the fate of settlements should be resolved through the peace talks along with other core issues like security and incitement in Palestinian media. It has played down the importance of settlements, saying the issue should be resolved in peace talks, and demanded the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland. The Palestinians have objected, saying it would undermine the rights of Israeli Arabs as well as the fate of Palestinian refugees claiming lost properties in what is now Israel.

The annual joint Cabinet meetings highlight the strong bond between Israel and Germany seven decades after the Holocaust, when Nazi Germany killed 6 million Jews. The countries only established diplomatic relations in 1965, nearly two decades after the Holocaust. Germany is a key Israeli trade partner.

But tensions have been rising. Earlier this month lawmakers from a nationalist Israeli political party stormed out of parliament to object to comments by the visiting president of the European Parliament, who is German. Martin Schulz enraged the lawmakers when he asked whether claims he had heard from a young Palestinian about Israel’s control over water resources were true.

Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, demanded an apology. “I will not accept untruthful patronizing of the people of Israel in our parliament, certainly not in German,” he said.

The figures cited by Schulz were indeed erroneous, but his general concern — that Israel consumes far more water than the Palestinians — was accurate, according to environmental groups.

Shortly before Merkel’s arrival, Germany announced that her deputy, Sigmar Gabriel, an outspoken critic of Israel, was not participating.

Gabriel two years ago dubbed the conditions of Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron as “apartheid” — a term that Israel unequivocally rejects as false. Gabriel’s office cited “illness” for the last-minute cancellation.

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