German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Israel on Sunday for her last visit to the country while in office. The Israeli government will take the unusual step of dedicating its weekly meeting to bidding farewell to Merkel and celebrating the cooperation between the two countries during her term.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has cleared most of his schedule – testimony to the importance with which Israel views the visit – and he is expected to accompany the chancellor on a host of events throughout the day.
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Merkel is expected to keep serving as chancellor until a new coalition is formed, which could take many weeks. A diplomatic source estimates that she will continue to hold a senior and influential position in the international arena even after retirement and therefore Israel has an interest in maintaining a close relationship with her and keeping her up to date on various issues.
Bennett plans to discuss the Iranian threat, the importance of maintaining Israel’s strength and Israeli-German relations. Under Merkel, Germany was one of the leaders who signed the nuclear agreement with Iran, which was opposed by Israel.
Sources familiar with the ongoing efforts to bring Iran back to the deal told Haaretz that Germany is still determined to lead the new Iranian administration along a diplomatic path, starting with re-signing the agreement. These sources say that Germany, although cognizant of the economic benefits of relations with Iran, oppose any easing of the sanctions against Iran before it returns to the original deal.
Merkel is considered Israel’s greatest friend in Europe, and Israel estimates that her successor will not display the same passion and commitment that characterized her lengthy reign.
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The chancellor initiated frequent meetings between the two governments in Jerusalem and Berlin, leading to tighter cooperation between the countries. When she came to Israel in 2008, she spoke at the Knesset to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel. This was the first time a German leader had expressed such deep commitment to Israel’s security.
“Israel’s security, to me, is unambiguous and not up for debate,” she said at the time, adding: “This must not be hollow when put to the test. Germany will never leave Israel on its own and will always be on her side.” Nor was this mere lip service. Merkel pushed for the sale of submarines and missile ships to Israel, despite political criticism.
Throughout the years Germany was involved in covert talks to release Israeli POW and MIA soldiers. The air forces of both countries are scheduled to hold a joint exercise soon, with the commander of the German Air Force scheduled to visit Israel.
This is Merkel’s seventh visit to Israel in over 16 years in office. She will not meet with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, a sign of the strained relations between the two over the years.
Merkel’s visit was supposed to take place in August, but was postponed due to the need to complete the evacuation of German forces from Afghanistan.