Merkel brings cabinet to Israel in attempt to boost relations

German chancellor to receive Israel’s highest civilian honour for ‘unwavering commitment’

Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu and German chancellor Angela Merkel shake hands after a short press statement in Jerusalem, Israel, on Monday. The governments are meeting for the fifth German-Israeli government consultations on February 24th and 25th. Photograph: Rainer Jensen/EPA

Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu and German chancellor Angela Merkel shake hands after a short press statement in Jerusalem, Israel, on Monday. The governments are meeting for the fifth German-Israeli government consultations on February 24th and 25th. Photograph: Rainer Jensen/EPA

 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken her cabinet on a two-day trip to Israel to boost German-Israeli relations that are increasingly burdened, for the first time, more by the present than the past.

After a joint cabinet meeting today, Israeli president Shimon Peres will award Dr Merkel Israel’s highest civilian honour for her “unwavering commitment” to Israeli security, education against anti-Semitism and “outstanding moral leadership”.

Six years ago, in a historic speech to the Knesset, Dr Merkel said Germany’s historical responsibility to Israel meant the nation’s “security will never be open to negotiation”. The Holocaust casts a shadow on this visit, the fifth round of joint cabinet meetings, with Dr Merkel and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to sign a bilateral agreement to top up pensions for survivors of Nazi-era Jewish ghettos.

In a vote of confidence for their future, however, another agreement will allow Israeli citizens to seek consular assistance abroad in German embassies where there is no Israeli presence. The German leader will push efforts to agree a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians and criticise Israel’s expanded settlement building, which she sees as a hindrance to peace.

With regular reports of bad-tempered phone calls between the two on this matter, Mr Netanyahu got in the first diplomatic volley ahead of the meeting on Sunday evening. He told German television he viewed settlements as a red herring in the peace process.

“When we left Gaza and handed it over to the Palestinians, we didn’t get peace: we got a base for terrorists backed by Iran,” he told public broadcaster ZDF. “The real issue is the willingness of the Palestinians to accept the Jewish state, a nation state of the Jewish people.”

Despite respect for Dr Merkel, whom he dubbed a “good, good friend”, Mr Netanyahu has been less than impressed with Berlin of late. It didn’t contest an EU funding withdrawal for some Israeli academic institutions, not did it intervene to halt labelling of products from the disputed West Bank and Golan territories.

Berlin’s decision to abstain rather than vote against the change in Palestinian UN observer status to “non-member state” in 2012 was decried in Israel. On the German side, the sense of growing mutual trust has come with greater readiness to criticise Israeli policies.

Despite those tensions, economic relations remain strong. With trade worth more than $6 billion annually, Germany is Israel’s third largest trading partner after the US and China.