JERUSALEM (Jan. 30)
It was cast as a courtesy visit to bolster a decades-old alliance built from the ashes of the Holocaust, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel came to Israel with a real mission in mind. With Israelis facing ever-greater threats in the form of Hamas and Iran, the new German leader used her first trip here to make clear that she took seriously Germany’s post-Holocaust responsibilities toward the Jewish state.
“The existence of the State of Israel is and remains an inviolable pillar of German policy, you can be sure of that,” the chancellor said Monday after laying a wreath at Yad Vashem. “We stand strongly at Israel’s side, especially during difficult times.”
A native of East Germany who saw firsthand the ravages of totalitarianism, Merkel made clear even before getting elected last November that supporting Israel and fighting anti-Semitism would be central to her foreign policy.
The fact that she visited Israel so soon — compared to the last five years in which her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, made no such effort — was welcomed in Jerusalem.
Aides to Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he and Merkel hit it off, especially since the German chancellor appeared to agree with Israel’s rancor over the inaction of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas against terror.
“He has fallen in love with his image of being a weak leader,” Yediot Achronot quoted Merkel as saying of Abbas in one closed-door discussion.
The terror issue looms large after Hamas’ victory in last week’s Palestinian elections. Merkel has matched President Bush in calling for the international community to isolate the a government led by the radical Islamic group until it reforms.
“Such a Palestinian Authority cannot be directly supported by money from the E.U.,” Merkel said ahead of a meeting with Abbas in which she was expected to request that he use his influence to get Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel.
Merkel made a point of not meeting with Hamas representatives during her two-day visit. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Islamic group issued an urgent appeal to foreign donors not to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority.
“We urge you to understand the Palestinian reality, and not to rush in and impose conditions and demands that ignore this reality and increase the suffering of the people,” Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas parliamentary faction, said in the Gaza Strip.
With Palestinians so dependent on foreign aid, some political analysts predict that a united European stand against Hamas will not last.
“Merkel’s no-nonsense leadership is especially needed to ensure that the E.U.’s enunciated criteria for dealing with Hamas do not get watered down,” wrote Elliot Jager, an editorial writer at The Jerusalem Post.
On another front, Merkel is considered key to countering the Iranian nuclear threat against Israel.
She was one of the first Western leaders to condemn Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denials and calls for the Jewish state to be “wiped off the map” last year.
Under her watch, Germany — one of the three E.U. nations trying, with little success, to talk Iran out of its nuclear plans — has shifted to a more aggressive approach.
Merkel told reporters that Iran “is not only a threat to Israel, but to the entire democratic world”.
“Iran is now crossing a red line and Germany finds to be unacceptable the Iranian president’s remarks regarding the distortion of history and we cannot countenance this. We will work to expand the refusal to accept Iran’s position and we will create a broad base that will refute this position,” she said.
In another show of solidarity with Israel, Merkel’s government has approved the discounted sale of two German-made Dolphin submarines to Israel, which will significantly expand its defensive capabilities.