German Chancellor Angela Merkel is scheduled to arrive Monday with 16 of her ministers for a government-to-government meeting at a time that some in the German media are calling a low point in German-Israeli ties.
Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, however, disputed this characterization, saying that the fact Merkel was coming with her entire cabinet illustrated the strength and good standing of relations.
“It is almost unprecedented to see a German chancellor come here with such a large delegation, and this shows both her fundamental friendship with Israel and the strength of the bilateral relationship,” one official said.
Merkel, due to arrive in the early evening, is to go immediately to the Prime Minister’s Residence for a private meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, followed by a working dinner.
Netanyahu said at Sunday’s cabinet meeting that Merkel was coming “as a friend of Israel.” He said he planned to discuss with her the talks with Iran, since Germany is part of the P5+1 group that renewed talks with Iran last week in Vienna.
He also said that he would discuss the Palestinian negotiations with her, and make it clear that the foundation for peace with the Palestinians “will be based on the mutual recognition of two national states, i.e. the necessity of Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state, the national state of the Jewish people.”
In her weekly podcast on Saturday, Merkel said she would lobby while in Israel on behalf of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts.
“We need a stable two-state solution as soon as possible, with a Jewish state of Israel as well as a state for the Palestinians,” Merkel said.
The European Union has been reticent to publicly back Israel’s demand for the Palestinians to recognize it as the nation state of the Jewish people.
The German weekly Der Spiegel wrote last week that “relations between the countries have never been as difficult during Merkel’s three terms in office as they are now,” and that “officials in Berlin view the Netanyahu government as being both incapable and unwilling when it comes to pushing forward in the peace process with the Palestinians.”
Merkel and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have been vocal in their opposition to Israel’s settlement policies, and Israel was stung in 2012 when Germany abstained, rather than voted against, the Palestinian move to win non-member observer state status in the UN General Assembly. Over the years a couple of Merkel-Netanyahu spats, primarily over settlement construction issues, have been made public.
In a meeting of his Likud ministers Sunday, Netanyahu was asked about reports that the US was pressing him to announce a construction freeze in the settlements outside the settlement blocs once Kerry presented his framework document of the basis for further negotiations.
Netanyahu was noncommittal in his reply, saying that there were endless demands and pressures on Israel, but that he was doing everything he could to withstand the pressure, preserve Israel’s standing in the world and protect the settlement enterprise.
Despite reports of a strain in ties, however, Steinmeier said that Germany had the closest ties with Israel of any European state.
“When Germany and Israel established diplomatic ties in 1965, they looked upon each other with cold suspicion. None of the observers would have predicted that in 50 years German and Israeli ministers would sit around a government table to decide on areas of cooperation in different diplomatic areas,” he wrote in an op-ed Sunday in Yediot Aharonot.
Steinmeier wrote that Israel often feels isolated and not understood, “but Israel does not stand alone. Germany and Europe are important partners that work with determination for Israel’s legitimization and right to exist.”
While this did not mean that there was agreement on all issues, he wrote, it did mean that Israel and its citizens “are very important to us.”
Steinmeier said that Germany vigorously supported the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and was encouraging Israel “to make the difficult but necessary decisions.”
Among the agreements to be signed on Tuesday are a consular accord, whereby Israelis who need consular representation in a state that does not share bilateral relations with it will be able to turn to German consular officials.
“This unique understanding illustrates again the deep trust between Israel and Germany and the special quality of our ties,” Steinmeier wrote.
Merkel was last here in 2012 for that year’s annual government- to-government meeting. In 2008 she addressed the Knesset and stressed “Germany’s special historical responsibility for Israel’s security.” This responsibility, she said, “is part of my country’s raison d’être.”
On Tuesday morning, the visiting German ministers are to meet for some 90 minutes with their Israeli counterparts. This will be followed by a joint meeting of the ministers of both governments.
Merkel and Netanyahu will hold a joint press conference following that meeting.
While some of the German ministers will fly back home after lunch, Merkel will stay for a few more hours and meet with opposition head Isaac Herzog and with President Shimon Peres.
Peres will bestow on Merkel the Presidential Medal of Distinction, Israel’s highest civilian honor, for her commitment to Israel’s security and for her moral leadership.
The government-to-government meeting will officially launch preparations for the celebration next year of a half-century of Israeli-German ties, with Netanyahu and Merkel expected to unveil a logo for that commemoration.
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