BERLIN (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his government were in Berlin Monday to take part in a special joint session with the German government, a symbolic visit highlighting the two nations’ bond six decades after the Holocaust.
It is the first time that an Israeli government will convene in Berlin, the former heart of the Nazi regime and the capital today of a reunified Germany.
High on the agenda will be Germany’s push to win the release of a captive Israeli soldier held by Hamas militants and its efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Environmental issues, economic cooperation and efforts to restart the Middle East peace process are also to be discussed.
The historic trip was originally scheduled for late November, but was put off at the last moment when Netanyahu fell ill with a viral infection and a light fever.
“We assign great importance to this good relationship with Germany,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday. “It has far-reaching implications for Israel’s economy, for Israel’s policies, for our political struggle in the world and for Israel’s security.”
Six million Jews perished in the Nazi Holocaust, and Israel was established three years after the end of World War II. Over the years, Germany has paid $39.4 billion in compensation to Holocaust survivors in Israel, some 250,000 of whom are still alive.
Some Israelis still refuse to buy German-made goods or visit Germany.
But since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1965, Germany has become perhaps Israel’s strongest ally in Europe. Germany is Israel’s third-largest trade partner after the U.S. and China. The Germans have also played a leading role as a Mideast mediator and in efforts to halt Iranian nuclear ambitions.
Monday’s session follows a historic visit in March 2008 by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Cabinet to mark the 60th anniversary of Israel’s independence. During that three-day visit, Merkel addressed the Israeli parliament, in German, and expressed shame over the Holocaust. The 20-minute speech earned Merkel a standing ovation.
In that joint government session, a first for Israel, the two nations approved a series of cooperative projects. Israeli and German governments are scheduled to hold joint Cabinet sessions once a year. Germany has such arrangements with five other nations.
“This visit aims to institutionalize this yearly arrangement, it is much more than symbolic,” said Shimon Stein, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Germany between 2000-2007. “Given Israel’s position in the world, it needs partners.”
Germany, like other European nations, has little influence on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking — that’s a role largely reserved for the U.S. — but has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians over the past decade.
Though not on the official agenda, the German-mediated efforts to arrange a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas — widely known yet not officially acknowledged by Berlin — will certainly be discussed as will the Iranian nuclear program.
Sgt. Gilad Schalit has been in Hamas captivity for more than three and a half years. Talks to swap him for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners have repeatedly broken down, but the addition of German mediation in recent months appears to have given new life to the talks.
Israel is also thankful for Germany’s leading role in the international efforts to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear program, which Israel and most of the West believes is meant to develop an atomic bomb. Israel considers a nuclear Iran to be an existential threat and has hinted at attacking Iran if international diplomacy fails.
Netanyahu’s entourage includes six Cabinet members— including his defense and foreign ministers — who will meet separately with their German counterparts.
In an emotional visit to Germany in August, Netanyahu received a set of blueprints to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. A month later, he waved the yellowing sketches at the United Nations in a passionate critique of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s questioning of the Holocaust.