Georgian Israelis to Merkel: Don't Block NATO Entry

In time-out from diplomacy, Merkel gets a taste of the Negev; Merkel to be asked about stalled air travel deal.

In an unusual move, members of Israel's Georgian community are taking advantage of the visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to push for Georgia's membership in NATO. About 1,650 community members have already signed a petition to this effect. Its organizers plan to hand the document to the German leader during her scheduled visit to the Knesset Monday.

Germany is considered the main obstacle to Georgia's joining NATO, on the grounds that countries embroiled in conflict (in Georgia's case, involving disputes with Russia) should not be accepted into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Georgia hopes to put forward its candidacy for NATO membership during the organization's summit in Romania early next month.

The petition is unusual in both content and style. "We can say that Georgia, like Israel, is a part of us and we are concerned about its fate," it begins, ending with a specific request: "We ask you to support Georgia's entry into NATO.... it would represent a victory for freedom and the democratic ideal."

Relations between members of Israel's Georgian community and their country of origin are unusually warm. Prior to January's elections in Georgia, former Georgians hung a banner over Ayalon Highway declaring support for President Mikheil Saakashvili.

In time-out from diplomacy, Merkel gets a taste of the Negev

On Sunday, Merkel took a few hours' break from contemplating Israeli-German relations and efforts to stop Iran's nuclear program to embark on a visit to the Negev.

In three hours, Merkel received a strong dose of the Israeli experience in a trip that crammed in Mitzpeh Ramon and Sde Boker.

It began with a brief welcoming ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport. Merkel and her entourage were then whisked away in three helicopters toward Mitzpeh Ramon, where President Shimon Peres was waiting for her. Merkel was not used to the desert heat and immediately after greeting Peres asked for a glass of water.

Refreshed, the two departed for Sde Boker to lay a wreath at the grave of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. As they approached a vista over the Zin Stream, cameramen scrambled to take pictures as the chancellor politely listened to Peres' explanations on the Negev's geology.

At the entrance to Ben-Gurion's cabin, Merkel was greeted by his granddaughter, Noa, who guided her around. In the living room, Merkel and Peres sat on Ben-Gurion's chairs. "This is where talks began with the new Germany, a different Germany," Peres told Merkel. "[German chancellor Konrad] Adenauer came to visit Ben-Gurion in this cabin."

Merkel was very impressed by the cabin's modesty. When she reached the tiny kitchen, she asked whether Ben-Gurion ate at the Kibbutz's communal dinning room. "Paula insisted that the cabin have a small kitchen because she was the only one who knew what Ben-Gurion liked," Noa said.

At the lawn by the dinning room, Merkel was welcomed by a delegation of kibbutz children. She then spoke with kibbutz members who told her about the upcoming Jewish holiday of Purim. "The holiday celebrates the Jewish people's rescue from its bitter enemies," a kibbutz member named Shmulik said. "We expect you to act to save us from the modern-day Haman, [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad," he added, comparing the Iranian president to the villain of the Purim narrative.

She later toured the kibbutz and asked many questions. "How many chickens have you got in the coop?" Merkel said. "About 770,000," answered coop manager Oded Hochberger, adding that they were free-range.

During her visit, Merkel will be asked to address the issue of a deadlock between Israeli and German authorities over a new air travel agreement.

Talks between the relevant authorities broke down last month when the Germans refused to give preferred status to Israeli flights at Frankfurt International Airport in return for Israeli permission for German carrier Lufthansa to operate a new flight from Munich to Ben-Gurion International Airport.

"The German authorities have for many years refused to change their operations system in a manner that would allow foreign airlines to compete against their own," an El Al representative said.

Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz and Transport and Road Safety Ministry Director General Gideon Siterman have asked the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry, which are organizing Merkel's visit, to raise the issue with her during her stay.