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.
"The Shoah Is a Source of Great Shame to Germans"
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 stressed that the German government supports the Annapolis peace process and, specifically, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "Germany stands firmly behind the vision of two states within secure borders and living in peace, for both the Jewish people in Israel and the Palestinian people in Palestine." Hamas, she said, is a threat to Israel. "I say this clearly and unequivocally: the Qassam attacks by Hamas must cease. Terrorist attacks are crimes, and they contribute no solution to the conflict that overshadows the region and the daily lives of people in Israel, as well as the lives of people in the Palestinian Autonomous Territories."
"A Loyal Partner and Friend"
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.
Germany, Merkel said, would "never abandon Israel, but instead will remain a loyal partner and friend." As in the past, Merkel's speech contained only homeopathic doses of criticism of Israel's occupation policy and its hesitation to commit itself to the peace process. "One must also have the strength to make painful concessions," the chancellor hinted, only to quickly dilute what had sounded like the beginnings of a rebuke. "In order to be a realist you must believe in miracles," she said, quoting David Ben Gurion, the founder and first prime minister of the State of Israel.
A little more bite, as Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently displayed when he criticized the planned expansion of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, would certainly not have hurt at this point. It also would have helped boost Germany's standing among Arab states -- a standing that repeatedly benefits Israel, as a state reception in the Knesset that preceded the plenary session had demonstrated. During the reception, Merkel met with members of the families of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, the two Israeli soldiers kidnapped by the Lebanese Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. In the past Germany, which many countries in the Middle East see as an "honest broker," has made behind-the-scenes arrangements for prisoner exchanges between Hezbollah and Israel. Berlin has also been involved in the case of the two soldiers, who have been in the hands of their kidnappers for more than a year and a half now. In her address, Knesset Speaker Itzik recognized Germany's role as an intermediary. "We know how hard you try," she said.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan