Merkel, Netanyahu play down differences during Israel visit

TIA GOLDENBERG
1 / 8
German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits the Hall of Names in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Israel, Thursday Oct. 4, 2018. (Debbie Hill/Pool via AP)

JERUSALEM (AP) — The leaders of Israel and Germany, countries that have built a strong alliance since the horrors of the Holocaust, put on a display of unity in Jerusalem on Thursday, even as the two states continue to grapple with gaping disagreements over Iran and the Palestinians.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Israel for two days of joint government consultations, the seventh such trip since Israel and Germany established the tradition a decade ago.

She and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared together at a press conference where they played down their differences. Netanyahu welcomed European efforts to address Iranian "aggression" in Europe, and Merkel agreed to prod the Palestinian leader over Israeli claims that he is to blame for the standstill in peace talks and a worsening situation in the Gaza Strip.

"We agree on most things, and we disagree on something. So what?" Netanyahu said. "We have a very strong alliance."

Despite gingerly addressing the gaps, the sides remain strongly divided over Europe's support for the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

Netanyahu says the deal, which curbed Iran's nuclear program, does not include enough safeguards to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear weapons capability. Netanyahu lauded President Donald Trump for pulling out of the deal this year, which Merkel and other world leaders helped negotiate.

Israel has also criticized Europe for moving forward on the Iran deal even as Iran has been accused of terror plots in Europe.

Merkel, whose rapport with Netanyahu has been cool at times, maintains that Israel will be best served by keeping the Iranian nuclear deal intact, contradicting Netanyahu's demand that it be scrapped and stiff sanctions imposed instead.

She earlier downplayed differences on Iran, saying the sides were "absolutely in agreement" on preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear arms, specifying that the agreement itself was in dispute.

Merkel has also continued to champion the traditional approach to Middle East peacemaking, calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state and for Israel to refrain from taking unilateral steps, such as settlement construction, that could undermine peace prospects.

In contrast, Trump has largely held off from criticizing Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, recognized Jerusalem as its capital and moved the U.S. Embassy there. He also has cut funding to the Palestinians and fully pinned the blame for stalled Mideast peace talks on them.

But on Thursday the criticism was restrained, with Merkel again advocating for the establishment of a Palestinian state but agreeing to speak to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — following Netanyahu's request — over charges that he is stymieing any new peace talks and plunging Gaza into greater crisis.

"I have promised the prime minister that in the aftermath of the German-Israeli consultations, I will call the Palestinian President (Mahmoud Abbas). I will inform him and also ask him some questions which also have to do with the situation in Gaza," she said. "I have heard from the prime minister that we also need to encourage the Palestinian side that they come to the negotiating table and I will do this."

Germany has also been among the European countries calling on Israel to refrain from carrying out its plans to demolish a West Bank hamlet that Israel says was illegally built. On Thursday, however, she said the issue was "an Israeli decision" and strongly denied reports that she had threatened to call off the trip if the demolition went forward.

Israel has offered to resettle the 180 Bedouin Palestinian residents of the Khan al-Ahmar encampment a few miles (kilometers) away. But Palestinians and their European backers say the demolition is aimed at displacing Palestinians in favor of settlement expansion and would deal a devastating blow to hopes for Palestinian statehood.

Germany is Israel's largest trading partner in Europe and for the past few decades has been perhaps its staunchest supporter.

Israel was established three years after the end of World War II, and the German government has paid billions in reparations to Holocaust survivors and positioned itself as a leader in combatting anti-Semitism. Under Merkel, it has been perhaps Israel's strongest European ally.

Merkel began the second day of her trip with an emotional tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum.

Accompanied by Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev, Merkel took special notice of an exhibited letter that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler sent deployed German soldiers in which he tried to boost their morale by saying they were fighting "a war of existence, a war against communism and its perpetrators, the Jews."

She then participated in a memorial ceremony for the 6 million victims of the Nazi-led Holocaust.

"The Jews in Germany suffered from hatred and violence that the world did not know was possible," she wrote in the memorial's guest book. "What came later is a crime that has no equal — the teardown of civilization — the Holocaust."

From there, she went to a different ceremony in Jerusalem where she was granted an honorary doctorate from Haifa University and answered questions from local students. She also met Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and toured an innovation exhibit of Israeli and German companies with Netanyahu.

Merkel was accompanied by much of her Cabinet, a large business delegation and a new official in charge of combatting anti-Semitism. The visit focused on economic issues, with an emphasis on innovation, technology and development projects.

Merkel met Netanyahu for dinner Wednesday night and their ministers were set to sign a series of new agreements, including scientific exchanges and joint projects in cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.