Germany’s Merkel meets Israeli leaders on farewell visit
German Chancellor Angela Merkel paid a final official visit to Israel on Sunday, saying she had been fortunate to play a key role in strengthening relations between the two countries after the horrors of the Holocaust during the Second World War.
The visit capped Mrs Merkel’s 16 years in office, which were characterised by near unwavering support for Israel.
Following an inconclusive election last month, her eventual successor – to be determined in lengthy coalition talks – is not expected to change that approach.
Mrs Merkel met Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, and was due to visit Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. Her talks with Israeli leaders were expected to focus on Iran’s nuclear programme.
Germany was a leading player in the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran. The deal fell apart after then-US president Donald Trump, with Israel’s support, withdrew from the agreement in 2018. Joe Biden’s administration has been trying to revive that deal amid Israeli objections.
Mr Bennett, welcoming Mrs Merkel to a meeting of the Israeli Cabinet, said the world cannot take a neutral stance towards Iran.
“The Iranian nuclear programme has advanced further than ever,” he said. “The world is waiting, the Iranians are buying time and the centrifuges are spinning.”
He said the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is not a strategic challenge for Israel.
“For us, it’s existential,” he said.
Earlier, Mr Bennett described Mrs Merkel as a great friend of Israel.
“The relationship between Germany and Israel has been strong, but, in your term, it has never been stronger,” Mr Bennett said.
“It has become more than just an alliance. It has become a true friendship thanks to your leadership. We’re looking forward to strengthening it even more in business relations, science, education, health and, of course, in security.”
Mrs Merkel called it a “stroke of good fortune” that, after the tragedy of the Holocaust, in which Germany’s Nazi leaders oversaw the murder of six million European Jews, “it has been possible to reset and to re-establish relations between Germany and Israel to the extent that we have done”.
She said Israel’s security “will always be of central importance and a central topic of every German government”.
Israel was formed in the wake of the Holocaust in 1948 and the two countries only established diplomatic ties in 1965. But over the decades those ties have warmed.
Germany is Israel’s largest trading partner in Europe and the German government has provided solid support to Israel during wars and diplomatic crises.
Mrs Merkel and former Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu had a sometimes cool relationship due to poor personal chemistry and differences over the Palestinian issue. Germany supports the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, while both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Bennett do not. But these differences have done little to upset the broader partnership.
There were no plans for Mrs Merkel to meet Mr Netanyahu, who is now Israel’s opposition leader.
She also not expected to meet Palestinian leaders in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union, said Mrs Merkel had built on the policies of her predecessors. He cited security co-operations, defending Israel against criticism in the European Union and a tough stance on anti-Semitism.
“Her predecessors started, but she certainly cemented it and brought it to new levels,” he said.
Mrs Merkel had been due to visit Israel in August, but the trip was postponed after the crisis in Afghanistan in which the Taliban seized power.
She then delayed the trip until after last month’s German election. She now remains in office in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed, a process that could take weeks or even months.
Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union had its worst-ever election result in the September 26 poll and the party’s leader, Armin Laschet, has indicated his willingness to step aside.
The centre-left Social Democrats, the environmentalist Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats held their first round of talks on forming a possible coalition on Thursday. If they succeed, the alliance would send Mrs Merkel’s bloc into opposition.