With German Chancellor Angela Merkel about to leave office, Israeli officials sought to use her visit Sunday not just to say farewell but for practical purposes, out of fear that her successor won’t be equally committed to Israel’s security.
As Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at the opening of a cabinet meeting with Merkel at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, the agenda “is laden with content, including essential matters for assuring the security of Israel for future generations.”
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In the final days of her term, how exactly can Merkel help “future generations”? Government sources refused to list the exact issues Bennett discussed with his visitor.
Still, despite disagreements over the Iranian nuclear issue, the two countries have carried out defense deals and joint military exercises in recent years. Merkel has been a major driving force behind Germany’s sale of submarines and missile ships to Israel, and Jerusalem has always found an attentive ear in Berlin for efforts to preserve Israel’s military superiority over other Middle Eastern countries – including Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Algeria – by curtailing German defense deals with them.
Bennett cleared his schedule Sunday to accompany Merkel to various events. Other cabinet members and President Isaac Herzog also went out of their way to thank her for her 16-year tenure during which she took German-Israeli relations to new heights.
Merkel is considered Israel’s best friend in Europe. Throughout her long term in office she has worked to improve relations with successive Israeli prime ministers. She launched the annual tradition of a joint cabinet meeting between Germany and Israel and encouraged cooperation between the two governments.
Israeli officials have repeatedly stressed her deep commitment to Israel’s security as a key element of her legacy. In his remarks to the cabinet, Bennett quoted something Merkel once said: “The security of Israel is part of Germany’s national interest. We are not neutral.”
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Still, Israel and Germany have for years had deep differences on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. Germany was a leading supporter of the negotiations with Iran that led to the signing of the nuclear accord with six world powers in 2015, and today as well it supports negotiations on resuming the deal. Some Israelis have charged that Berlin wants an agreement not only for security reasons but also because Germany could reap economic benefits.
Now Israeli officials are worrying about the post-Merkel era. Even though they’re convinced that bilateral relations will remain strong and her successor will remain committed to Israel while remembering the Holocaust and fighting antisemitism, they’re not convinced he’ll work as energetically as Merkel did to promote Israel’s security.
Merkel will remain in office until a new government is formed in Germany. Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, who is still finance minister under Merkel, is her most likely successor, and he’s considered a friend of Israel.
Like Merkel, though he supports a return to the Iranian nuclear deal, he has publicly expressed a commitment to Israel’s security. Still, it’s not clear to Israel what form this commitment might take.
But regardless of who Germany’s next prime minister is, Israel is hoping that Merkel’s departure from the global leadership ranks is only temporary. A senior diplomatic source said recently that since she’ll remain highly esteemed around the world after retiring, she might accept some other influential international post. If so, she could continue furthering Israel’s interests wearing a new hat.