German Chancellor Angela Merkel kicked off the second day of her two-day visit to Israel on Thursday with an emotional tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum.
Israel was established three years after the end of World War II, and the German government has paid billions in reparations to Holocaust survivors and positioned itself as a leader in combatting anti-Semitism. Under Merkel’s, it has been perhaps Israel’s strongest European ally.
Accompanied by Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev, Merkel took special notice of an exhibited letter that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler sent deployed German soldiers in which he tried to boost their morale by saying they were fighting “a war of existence, a war against communism and its perpetrators, the Jews.”
She then participated in a memorial ceremony for the 6 million victims of the Nazi-led Holocaust.
“The Jews in Germany suffered from hatred and violence that the world did not know was possible,” she wrote in the memorial’s guest book. “What came later is a crime that has no equal — the teardown of civilization — the Holocaust.”
From there, she went to a different ceremony in Jerusalem where she was granted an honorary doctorate from Haifa University and answered questions from local students.
Merkel is in Israel for the latest in a series of joint government consultations. She is accompanied by much of her Cabinet, a large business delegation and a new official in charge of combatting anti-Semitism. The visit is expected to focus on economic issues, with an emphasis on innovation, technology and development projects.
It’s the seventh such joint government meeting since Israel and Germany established the tradition a decade ago.
Merkel met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for dinner Wednesday night and the two are scheduled to meet again, with their ministers set to sign a series of new agreements, including scientific exchanges and joint projects in cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.
Germany is Israel’s largest trading partner in Europe and for the past few decades has been perhaps its staunchest supporter. But differences have been exacerbated following the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, particularly regarding Israel’s policies toward Iran and the Palestinians.
Netanyahu has been one of Trump’s biggest international backers, lauding him for pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal that Merkel and other world leaders helped negotiate in 2015. Netanyahu says the deal, which curbed Iran’s nuclear program, does not include enough safeguards to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear weapons capability.
Trump also has largely refrained from criticizing Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank — a frequent European complaint — recognized Jerusalem as its capital and moved the U.S. Embassy there. He also has cut funding to the Palestinians and fully pinned the blame for stalled Mideast peace talks on them.
In contrast, Merkel has continued to champion the traditional approach to Middle East peacemaking, calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state and for Israel to refrain from unilateral steps to undermine its prospect.
Germany has also been among the European countries calling on Israel to refrain from carrying out its plans to demolish a West Bank hamlet that Israel says was illegally built.
Israel has offered to resettle the 180 Bedouin Palestinian residents of the Khan al-Ahmar encampment a few miles (kilometers) away. But Palestinians and their European backers say the demolition is aimed at displacing Palestinians in favor of settlement expansion and would deal a devastating blow to hopes for Palestinian statehood.
Israel’s Supreme Court recently rejected a final appeal against the plans and residents are bracing for the move any day. Merkel, however, strongly denied that she was considering calling off the trip if it were to go forward.
“It’s an Israeli decision, and our trip is not influenced by this,” she told the university students in Jerusalem. “One can have a difference of opinions about this, the settlement policy, and I have critical comments to make about this because I believe in a two-state solution, but this is a different matter.”
Merkel, whose rapport with Netanyahu has been cool at times, also maintains that Israel will be best served by keeping the Iranian nuclear deal intact, contradicting Netanyahu’s demand that it be scraped and stiff sanctions imposed instead.
“On the fundamental statement, that everything must be done to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, we are absolutely in agreement,” she said. “The issue, on which we have different views, is whether the agreement that was reached with Iran is a path, for a specific period, to prevent the nuclear development.”
Source: The Associated Press