Merkel will be the first German chancellor to address the Israeli parliament when she gives a speech at the Knesset on Tuesday, an honour normally reserved for heads of state.
“On the one hand we should never lose sight of our responsibility for the past – and German policy never will – on the other, we should look to the future of our relations” with Israel, Merkel said on the eve of her trip. She said that anyone familiar with the history of the Nazi era and the Holocaust would know that Germany’s stable and friendly relations with Israel today were “one of the miracles of history.”
The three-day visit is designed to mark the 60th anniversary of the creation of Israel, which will be officially celebrated in May. Merkel is to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, which commemorates the six million Jews killed in the Nazi genocide, known in Israel by the Hebrew word Shoah.
Merkel said she wanted “to show our responsibility for the past – the horrors of the Shoah – and demonstrate clearly that Israel’s right to existence is a constant in German foreign policy.”
Merkel, Germany’s first chancellor to be born after the war, will travel to Israel accompanied by the top members of her cabinet for a full inter-governmental conference, a rare diplomatic event.
“This is an extremely important visit. Germany is today one of Israel’s best friends in Europe and Merkel is one of Israel’s best friends in the world,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Arye Mekel told AFP.
Joschka Fischer, the former leftwing radical and later Germany’s foreign minister, said once that in view of the Holocaust it was incredible that Germany and Israel had “any kind of relationship at all.”
But more than 60 years since the eyes of the world were opened to the horrors at the Nazi death camps, Germany is Israel’s most important political and trading partner in Europe. Once unthinkable, the two countries have had full diplomatic relations – something which has not been managed with some of Israel’s neighbours – for almost 43 years.
Relations between Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are seen by analysts as warm, with the 53-year-old conservative chancellor taking a firm line on Iran and visiting Israel just two months after being elected.
On Sunday she will visit Sde Boker, the kibbutz in the Negev Desert where Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion is buried and where in 1966 Ben Gurion met with Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first chancellor. It was Adenauer, postwar Germany’s towering political figure, who made the first step towards a normalization of ties in a 1951 speech to the German parliament mentioning taking responsibility for the Holocaust.
But it was not until 1965 that the two countries set up full diplomatic relations, something which communist East Germany never managed. With Holocaust survivors still alive in Israel, Merkel cannot expect to be welcomed with open arms by everyone, and her intention to address the Knesset in German has ruffled some feathers.
When Johannes Rau became the first German head of state to address the Knesset in 2000, he did so in German and several Israeli MPs stormed out in protest.
Horst Köhler, Rau’s successor and the current head of state, received a warmer reception five years later and included several sentences in Hebrew in his speech.