Merkel's visit / With the zeal of a convert
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier left Israel only hours before Chancellor Angela Merkel took to the Knesset podium. The Germans meticulously calculated that the entourage of ministers accompanying Merkel might make her seem imperious, as though she were a ruler surrounded by subjects.
Indeed, there was something imperious about the inclusion of so many ministers in Merkel's delegation. The Germans already have held joint government sessions with other governments, such as France and Poland. No foreign government has held a session in Jerusalem since the British mandate.
Prior to her arrival, Merkel made an effort to call Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayad. But her joint session with Olmert's government was a show of complete and unequivocal support for its policies. Threatening Israel's existence is akin to threatening Germany's, Merkel said during her visit. Even U.S. politicians never have made such a statement.
During her Knesset speech, Merkel spoke extensively about the Holocaust and her country's friendship with Israel; these were heart-warming, yet predictable, remarks. It is often said the two countries have a special relationship. Beforehand, such a remark always related to the Holocaust, which loomed large; nowadays, it refers to the two countries' affinity in almost every field, including security, cultural and economic ties. One cannot imagine Israel's cultural scene without the millions invested by Germany. MK Avishay Braverman (Labor), formerly the president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said yesterday that at times, Germany aided his institution more than the Israeli government did.
With that in mind, it seems curious that the two countries failed to sign a cultural ties agreement during Merkel's trip, but the deal was not thwarted because of emotional residues. Rather, what prevented it were perfectly prosaic issues: The Germans asked that the Goethe Institute receive tax breaks, which Israel rejected.
Anyone unaware of where Merkel was speaking (Jerusalem) would never have known it is a city where a third of its citizens have been living under occupation for more than 40 years, a city divided by a wall reminiscent of the Berlin Wall. Merkel spoke of the need for "painful concessions" from both sides in the name of peace. Olmert has used this term as well.
She rightfully described the Qassam rocket fire on Sderot as a crime, but did not say a word about repeated human rights abuses in the West Bank, the bombing of residential areas in Gaza or the settlements. Olmert was caught on camera telling Merkel that all the construction workers building a house in front of his residence are Arabs, and the chancellor gave a concerned nod in return.
Had she been more balanced, Merkel might have made life in Israel and the occupied territories less intolerable. Perhaps she made an error. Either way, her unrestrained support for Israeli policy is a result of her biography. As she said yesterday, she came from East Germany, which used to ignore its part in Nazi crimes and act as though it were West Germany's fault alone.
After German unification, Merkel discovered that the moral and political responsibility for the genocide of the Jews rested equally on all Germans.
Most West Germans already had grown accustomed to that knowledge. One of her insiders equated her stance on Israel to that of a convert embracing a new set of beliefs. But either way, Merkel's stance does not represent Germany's or Israel's public discourse.