Olmert Apologizes to Germany's Merkel for Lebanon Plane Incident

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert phoned German Chancellor Angela Merkel Sunday to apologize for the incident that took place last week between Israel Air Force planes and a German naval vessel off the coast of Lebanon. Olmert made the call to strengthen Merkel's position, government sources in Jerusalem said. The sources added that Merkel had been been roundly criticized by her political opposition, which is against the deployment of troops in Lebanon due to the risk to German forces, as well as the risk of impairing the special relationship between Germany and Israel.

Olmert expressed regret over the incident, but according to a statement from his bureau, "he did not say we had acted improperly." Olmert asked that Germany maintain its naval presence in the UNIFIL force, although Germany has not threatened to pull out.

The prime minister coordinated his apology with Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

The incident has revealed flaws in the government's control over the army: Peretz learned of it only after it was reported by the German media last weekend, following which he asked the Israel Defense Forces for an explanation. Only then did he discover that the air force had scrambled war planes toward a German helicopter. It was later revealed that, in another incident, planes on a training flight had released flares and the Germans mistakenly thought they were being fired on.

Olmert told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee yesterday that time was needed for the international force to operate properly, and the incident with the Germans were "beginning flutters."

According to Olmert, nothing tragic occurred and the moment the pilots identified the German helicopter, they evacuated the area. The problem apparently lay in the clash of German and Israeli identification systems. He said Israel would establish a coordinating system directly with the Germans.