Peter Hirschberg
Inter Press Service (IPS)
March 24, 2008 - 5:52pm

German Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed that her country would always stand by Israel, that she was committed to halting Iran's nuclear ambitions, and that rocket attacks by Palestinian militants in Gaza on Israeli towns and cities were a criminal act.

Merkel did not utter a critical word about ongoing Israeli construction in settlements in the West Bank. She did not call on Israel to act with restraint in retaliating TO the rocket attacks by Palestinian militants. And she did not demand an easing of the crippling travel restrictions Israel imposes on Palestinians in the West Bank.

But the focus of Merkel's visit was never going to be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- not with the history of the relations between the two countries and the fact that the visit by the German chancellor and at least half of her cabinet was meant to mark the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state, which was born out of the ashes of World War II and the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis.

In a first-ever address by a German chancellor to the Israeli parliament, Merkel told Israeli lawmakers that they had Germany's full support and that the Holocaust filled her and her countrymen with "shame".

"The mass murder of six million Jews, carried out in the name of Germany, has brought indescribable suffering to the Jewish people, Europe and the entire world," she said.

"The Shoah fills us Germans with shame," she continued, using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust. "I bow to the victims. I bow to all those who helped the survivors."

The decision by Israeli lawmakers to allow Merkel to address parliament, and in German, is a rare honour. The gesture reflected the special relationship that has developed between the two countries and the fact that for Israel, Germany is its staunchest ally in Europe.

A handful of Israeli lawmakers protested against the invitation to Merkel to address parliament and the fact she would do so in German. Arieh Eldad, a member of the far-right National Union party, walked out of the plenum in protest. "I know the last sounds heard by my grandparents and my uncles whom I have not known, were those of the German language," he explained.

But the vast majority of lawmakers were present as Merkel began her address in Hebrew, thanking her hosts for allowing her to speak in her "mother tongue" before continuing in German. When she finished her 20-minute address, lawmakers gave her a standing ovation.

Merkel, 53, the first Chancellor to be born after World War II, said that she felt a "historical responsibility" for Israel's security, particularly in light of threats from Iran. "It's not the world that must prove to Iran that Iran is building the nuclear bomb," she said. "Iran must convince the world it does not want the nuclear bomb."

Israel believes that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons, and Israeli leaders have said that "all options" are open when it comes to preventing Tehran from gaining nuclear proficiency. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert lauded Merkel for what he called her "strong and determined position against the horrific calls from the President of Iran to wipe Israel off the map, and against Tehran's trickery and deceit."

Merkel told lawmakers in parliament that her country was "setting its sights on a diplomatic solution, together with its partners. The German government will, if Iran does not give in, continue to resolutely defend sanctions," she said.

Merkel did address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying that the two-state solution was the best way to resolve the conflict. But she declined to criticise Israel's insistence on building in settlements. Asked about the matter, Merkel said only that it was a complex issue.

Members of the Islamic Hamas movement attacked the Chancellor, accusing her of ignoring what they called Israel's "holocaust" against the Palestinians in Gaza. Since Hamas snatched control of the coastal strip last year from the more moderate Fatah movement, Israel has imposed a blockade on the area, limiting the flow of goods -- and at times electrical power -- into the strip.

Hamas, which is committed to the destruction of Israel, said that Merkel had "closed her eyes to the holocaust that this entity (Israel) has perpetrated in the Gaza Strip, focusing only on the Holocaust committed by the Nazis against the Jews in her country, the extent of which is a subject of doubts and exaggerations." (Germany has been a major donor to the Palestinians, having donated hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinian Authority since its inception in 1994.)

Writing in the daily Haaretz newspaper, historian and journalist Tom Segev said that Merkel "rightfully described the Qassam rocket fire on (the southern town) Sderot as a crime, but did not say a word about repeated human rights abuses in the West Bank, the bombing of residential areas in Gaza or the settlements."

Israel and Germany established diplomatic ties in 1965 after a long period of negotiations, including talks over reparations for Jewish property that was seized by the Nazis during the war. Germany has for decades also paid reparations, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars, to Holocaust survivors.

Merkel said the invitation to address parliament was "a very important step in the development of German-Israeli relations." These were cemented further when at a joint cabinet meeting held by Israeli and German ministers in Jerusalem -- a rare event -- an agreement was signed for tighter military, political, economic and cultural cooperation.

The explanation for this "unrestrained support for Israeli policy," wrote Segev, lies in Merkel's biography. "As she said...she came from East Germany, which used to ignore its part in Nazi crimes and act as though it were West Germany's fault alone.

"After German unification, Merkel discovered that the moral and political responsibility for the genocide of the Jews rested equally on all Germans."


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