Merkel and Israel’s Bennett differ on Iran and Palestine

Germany’s outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel received a warm welcome as she paid a final official visit to Israel, but differences emerged between the close allies on the key issues of Iran’s nuclear programme and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

rs Merkel said that Germany remained committed to reviving the international nuclear agreement with Iran — a step Israel opposes. She also said that Germany believed that a two-state solution remained the best way to end Israel’s decades-long conflict with the Palestinians.

“I think that on this point, even if at this stage it seems almost hopeless, the idea of a two-state solution should not be taken off the table, it should not be buried … and that the Palestinians should be able to live securely in a state,” Mrs Merkel said at a joint news conference with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (Menahem Kahana/Pool Photo via AP)

She also said that Israeli settlement construction on occupied territories sought by the Palestinians was unhelpful.

Mr Bennett, a former settler leader who opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state, quickly pushed back.

“Based on our experience, the meaning of a Palestinian state means that very likely there will be established a terror state, roughly seven minutes from my house and from almost any point in Israel,” he said.

Calling himself a “pragmatic man”, he instead said he was prepared to take steps on the ground to improve living conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Palestinian official who oversees relations with Israel, responded angrily.

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Angela Merkel said Israel’s security ‘will always be of central importance and a central topic of every German government’ (Menahem Kahana/Pool Photo via AP)

“The worst form of terrorism is the occupation, not the establishment of a Palestinian state,” he wrote on Twitter.

It was one of the few disagreements between the close allies during Mrs Merkel’s two-day visit, which caps a 16-year term marked by near unwavering support for Israel.

At every stop, she was welcomed as a “true friend” of Israel.

She repeatedly professed Germany’s commitment to Israel’s security and said she was confident that Germany’s next government — to be determined in lengthy coalition talks following an inconclusive election last month — would take a similar stance.

“I am optimistic that every German government, including the one that follows mine, will feel committed to Israel’s security, and I think any successor who becomes German chancellor will see it that way,” she said.

Much of the agenda was expected to focus on Iran’s nuclear programme. While the two leaders both vowed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, they voiced different approaches about how to do that.

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Mr Bennett and Mrs Merkel arrive to give a joint press conference following their meeting (Menahem Kahana/Pool via AP)

Germany was a leading player in the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran. The deal fell apart after former US president Donald Trump, with Israel’s support, withdrew from the agreement in 2018. The Biden administration has been trying to revive that deal — known as the JCPOA — over Israeli objections.

“I never considered the JCPOA to be ideal, but it’s better than having no agreement,” Mrs Merkel said.

She said the situation was “very difficult” as Iran continued to enrich uranium.

“We are facing critical weeks around this question,” she said.

Israel considers Iran its greatest enemy, citing the country’s military presence in neighbouring Syria and its support for hostile militant groups across the region.

It accuses Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons — a charge Iran denies — and says a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel.

“There is no point in trying to appease the Iranians. They interpret conciliation as a weakness,” Mr Bennett said, accusing Iran of trying to delay while it moved forward with its weapons efforts.

“This is a critical point in time, and Germany’s position is particularly important.”

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Mrs Merkel pauses after laying a wreath during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Mrs Merkel also made a stop at Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, where she laid a wreath in memory of the six million European Jews killed by the Nazis during the Second World War.

“Every visit to Yad Vashem touches me at the core,” Mrs Merkel said, according to a translation provided by the memorial.

“The crimes against the Jewish people that are documented here are a perpetual reminder of the responsibility we Germans bear and a warning,” she added, saying it was Germany’s responsibility to stand up against anti-Semitism.

Israel was formed in the wake of the Holocaust in 1948 and the two countries only established diplomatic ties in 1965. But over the decades those ties have warmed.

Germany is Israel’s largest trading partner in Europe and the German government has provided solid support to Israel during wars and diplomatic crises.

Mrs Merkel was scheduled to visit in August, but the trip was postponed after the crisis in Afghanistan in which the Taliban seized power.

She then delayed the visit until after last month’s German election. She now remains in office in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed, a process that could take weeks or even months.

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