Merkel bids Israel farewell after 16 years of support

Published : 10 Oct 2021 09:31 PM | Updated : 11 Oct 2021 12:51 PM

Germany's outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Israel on Sunday for a farewell tour after a 16-year term during which she cultivated warm relations with the country.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said he would discuss "regional threats and challenges, especially the Iranian nuclear issue" with Ms Merkel, and maintaining Israel's "strength in all spheres".

It was Merkel's eighth and final visit to Israel as chancellor, as she prepares to retire from politics.

She arrived on Saturday night, the Israeli foreign ministry said.

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Ms Merkel had planned to visit in August but delayed her trip amid the chaotic exit of US and allied forces, including Germans, from Afghanistan.

The 67-year-old, a physicist by training, is to receive an honorary doctorate from Haifa's Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.

She was also set to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and meet Israeli tech leaders, Mr Bennett's office said.

Ms Merkel was the guest of Mr Bennett, who ended Benjamin Netanyahu's 12 years as premier when he took office in June.

In her message of congratulations, Ms Merkel said Germany and Israel were "connected by a unique friendship that we want to strengthen further".

Her administration advocated for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But she stressed Israel's security as a crucial priority of German foreign policy.

Germany and Israel forged strong diplomatic ties in the decades after the Second World War, with Berlin committed to Israel's preservation in penance for the Holocaust.

In 2008, Ms Merkel stood before the Israeli parliament to atone on behalf of the German people in a historic address.

Her administration backed Israel's "right to defend itself" in May, as Israel bombed Gaza in response to rockets fired by militants from the blockaded enclave.

The Israeli strikes killed 260 people in Gaza including combatants, Palestinian health authorities said.

Thirteen people in Israel died including a soldier, according to the Israeli police and army.

Advocates for the Palestinians have urged Germany to demand an end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that began in 1967.

More than 600,000 Israeli settlers have moved into the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Palestinians hope will become part of their future state.

Israel has maintained a blockade on Gaza's two million residents since the Islamist movement Hamas seized control in 2007.

Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, criticised Ms Merkel for regarding Israel's 54-year occupation as "temporary".

"Maintaining this fiction has allowed the Merkel government to avoid dealing with the reality of apartheid and persecution of millions of Palestinians," he said.

"The new German government should put human rights at the centre of its Israel and Palestine policy."

After Ms Merkel's Christian Democratic Union performed poorly in elections last month, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) appear poised to head a new coalition as party negotiations continue.

A rare point of difference between Germany and Israel is a 2015 deal that Berlin signed to lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for greater supervision of its nuclear programme.

Israel is opposed to efforts by Germany, the US and other signatories to revive the deal after then US president Donald Trump withdrew from it in 2018.