Hamilton, Madison, and Jay

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Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Merkel to Israel

Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, made a historic visit to Israel. One in which she promised that Germany would "never abandon Israel":

Angela Merkel had prepared long in advance, and she had carefully considered the move. "Madam President, thank you for allowing me to speak here today," the German chancellor read, in slightly awkward Hebrew, at 5:20 p.m. in Jerusalem's Knesset. "It is a great honor for me."

Then she reverted to German and began by expressing her appreciation for being allowed to address the Israeli parliament. The historic moment, which had triggered relatively minor debate in Israel in the days leading up to the event, had finally arrived. A German head of government was speaking before the Knesset -- in German, the "language of the murderers," as critics had noted.

But in the end only a handful of parliamentarians stayed away, because they perceived Merkel's appearance as "insensitive." The vast majority of the Israeli parliament, though, listened attentively and, after a final "Shalom!" gave the chancellor a standing ovation. It was probably the most convincing sign that the three-day visit to Israel by Merkel and eight German cabinet ministers marks a shift in the nature of German-Israeli relations.

Merkel's address was anticipated with some apprehension, and not just by the Israeli press, which had speculated for days over what the chancellor was likely to say or ought to say. It was still hours before the full plenary session when visitors began walking up the drive, lined with German and Israeli flags, to the Knesset building, a cube-shaped structure standing exposed on one of Jerusalem's many hills. Young German exchange students and older people who represented the generation of Holocaust survivors passed through security and filled the visitor's galley in the Knesset's plenum hall to listen to what the chancellor had to say. The Knesset's bylaws had been changed just so that Merkel could appear before it. Under the existing rule, only heads of state, not heads of government, are permitted to address a full plenary session of the Knesset.

There were no surprises in the commemorative speech Merkel eventually gave. The content of the speech was nothing new, but Merkel managed to speak graciously, choosing the appropriate tone for the occasion. After recognizing the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel, Merkel launched into an extensive discussion of Germany's past. "The Shoah is a source of great shame to Germans. I bow to the victims. I bow to the survivors and to all those who helped them survive," said the chancellor, who characterized the "fracture of civilization by the Shoah" as unprecedented. With a view to her own origins, she told her audience that she had spent the first 35 years of her life in East Germany, where Nazism had been viewed as a purely West German problem. It took 40 years, Merkel said, for all of Germany to own up to its responsibility to the State of Israel.

As in the days leading up to the speech, the chancellor emphasized the threat under which Israel lives today. Iran, the terrorist tactics of Hamas and Syria's pressure on neighboring Lebanon, Merkel said, are problems with worldwide significance in an age of globalization. "Instability here is not without consequences for us in Germany and Europe." There was a clear sense of irony to her explicitly calling on Syria "from this podium" to provide a constructive contribution to resolving the crisis in Lebanon. Damascus is hardly likely to take to heart an admonition coming from someone speaking to the Israeli Knesset. ...

Merkel's address was preceded by speeches by Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. While Itzik and Olmert mentioned the special relations between the two countries -- Itzik said "it is not obvious that we open our hearts to you" -- Netanyahu did not shy away from addressing tough political issues. Netanyahu, known as a hawk, said that Germany must clearly take the position that Iran should never be allowed to have nuclear weapons. Sanctions against Iran, he added, can only succeed if Iran knows that other options, including the military option, are on the table. The chancellor did not address Israel's strong wish, often expressed in recent days, that Germany take a sharper stance toward Iran. But she did reiterate her position that Germany favors a diplomatic solution.

She also touched on Hezbollah, and a need for them to end their incessant attacks against Israel with Qasam rockets. In the end it was a good visit for her, despite those that refused to attend, and despite Netanyahu's tough call. See, Germany is a trade partner with Iran, and their economy depends on that alliance. We all wish that all nations in the West would sever ties to Iran, but many in Europe have been trading with them for decades, despite the strong theocratic influence.

Given Merkel's tough stand against radical Islam, and her calls for the Palestinians to be honest in their dealings with the peace process, we don't see Germany being a problem for Israel in the coming months and years. Merkel was one of the world leaders backing Israel in their recent dust up with Hezbollah, and she was one of the last world leaders to even posit the idea that Israel should back off. By then it was obvious that Olmert's fecklessness had cost the Israelis the initiative on the battlefield, and that they could hope only for a draw.

Publius II


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