Merkel, Netanyahu Agree to Disagree

YERUSHALAYIM (Reuters/Hamodia) -

Germany views Iran as a potential threat not just to Israel, but also to European countries, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday at a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

But Merkel stopped short of endorsing her host’s demand that Tehran give up all sensitive nuclear projects under any negotiated deal with world powers, and reiterated Berlin’s opposition to Israeli construction over the Green Line.

Germany is Israel’s most important ally in Europe, and a bellwether of European sentiment on Middle East issues.

The German chancellor arrived in Yerushalayim with her cabinet to mark almost 50 years of bilateral ties with Israel.

“We see the threat not just as a threat for the state of Israel but as a general threat for Europe as well,” she said of a potential Iranian bomb, adding that Germany would pursue international talks with Tehran on its nuclear activities.

“I think it’s a mistake,” Netanyahu said. “Every single leader that I’ve talked to in the Middle East agrees with that position, whether they say so publicly or not. Why? Because if Iran really wants just civilian nuclear energy, then they don’t need any enrichment. They don’t need centrifuges.”

Asked if she agreed, Merkel was circumspect.

“It is clear that there is a difference of opinion here with regard to these negotiations and whether they ought to take place. We have set out on the path of low enrichment, but enrichment does take place and I believe that we can succeed,” she said.

“The question is whether we will be able to achieve a result that is better than the present state of affairs. We have decided it is better to participate in the negotiations because we believe that to be better than the status quo.”

Both Netanyahu and Merkel spoke out against calls in Europe for Israeli products to be boycotted.

“We do not support the demands for a boycott. This is not an option for Germany. We have certain rules of labeling and we have to adhere to those rules, but we do not believe in boycotts,” she said.

Regarding the peace talks, Merkel, who ahead of her arrival was reportedly planning to pressure Netanyahu to make some progress, reiterated the German position:

“For a two-state solution we need territorial integrity for the individual entities. In view of this, we regard the settlements question with concern and are not always of the same opinion” as Israel, she said.

However, Merkel gave her support to Netanyahu’s insistence on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

“Once an agreement is reached, mutual recognition would have to take place,” she said, adding that it was a “pre-condition” for a final status agreement.

Prior to the visit, there had been speculation in the media that Israeli-German relations were at a low point due to strains over the peace talks. Merkel has taken pains to dispel such talk.

“We have come here with almost the whole of our new government and we wanted to show you in this way that this is indeed a very strong friendship,” Merkel said in German. Her words were relayed in English through a translator.

The one-day visit included the signing of numerous bilateral pacts:

  • An agreement allowing Israeli youths to work for up to a year in Germany, and German youths being given the opportunity to do the same in Israel. Under the plan, young adults aged 18-30 can apply for the visas and look for work to help them pay for travel or gain experience in a particular field, The Jerusalem Post reported.
  • Another agreement scheduled to be inked on Tuesday was the 50-million euro program for joint projects in Africa. Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin explained that the program of technical and environmental assistance enables Israel to make significant inroads into Africa.
  • In addition, Israelis traveling or doing business in a country with which Israel does not have diplomatic ties will now be able to make use of German consular services where necessary. For instance, one Foreign Ministry official said, if Israeli tourists in Indonesia run into distress, they will — after getting permission from the Israeli foreign ministry — be able to turn to German consular services there for assistance.

Merkel on Tuesday became the first European leader to receive the Presidential Medal of Distinction from Shimon Peres.

All previous recipients in the political world were Americans: former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton.

The honor was bestowed on Merkel in recognition of “her unwavering commitment to Israel’s security and the fight against anti-Semitism and racism.”