Germans, Israelis see Merkel's trip as "exceptional"
( dpa ) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel's pending three-day visit to Israel is to be an exceptional event that acknowledges German responsibility for the Holocaust and signals close future ties, according to officials on both sides.
Israel's ambassador to Berlin, Yoram Ben-Zeev, described the trip as "one of the most important by a head of government in many years," in interviews with German newspapers published Thursday.
Senior German government officials stressed the "exceptional nature" of the visit, which begins on Sunday and comes ahead of the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding.
Ben-Zeev said his government had high expectations from the visit, with regard both to Germany's role in mediating Israel's links with the European Union and to its efforts in promoting the creation of "viable and democratic state structures" in the Palestinian territories.
The German side highlighted the launching of annual consultations between the two governments, with future meetings held alternately in Germany and Israel.
Seven government ministers, including Foreign Minister Frank- Walter Steinmeier, are travelling with Merkel and are to hold bilateral talks with their Israeli counterparts.
Germany currently holds similar consultations only with France, Italy, Spain, Poland and Russia.
Officials said the trip combined acknowledging past German responsibility for the Shoah, or Holocaust, with high expectations for future relations.
The climax to the visit comes on Tuesday afternoon, with Merkel's speech to the Israeli parliament.
The German side would not be drawn on the content of the 20-minute address, the first by a German chancellor to the Knesset, although former Chancellor Helmut Kohl spoke to parliamentarians in the Knesset building in 1984.
The Knesset had to change its rules for the event to allow a foreign head of government to speak, and the fact that Merkel is to speak in German provoked intense debate in Israel.
Merkel's delegation, which includes business leaders, headed by Federation of German Industry (BDI) head Juergen Thumann, is to discuss a range of future projects, including youth schemes and high- level military contacts.
Officials said controversial themes, such as Israel's recent announcement it planned to restart settlement building in East Jerusalem, and Germany's continuing trade links with Israel's archenemy, Iran, would come up in the bilateral talks.
Merkel attached high priority to the success of the Annapolis process, they said, predicting that issues like conditions in Gaza and the firing of rockets at Israeli territory would be discussed.
They denied that Germany was especially cautious when criticizing the Jewish state.
Despite spending three days in the region, Merkel would not be holding talks with Palestinian officials, they said. The visit was not a normal working visit, but had special significance for German- Israeli relations.
Merkel is to lay a wreath at the grave of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, and visit the memorial to the Holocaust at Yad Vashem.
The chancellor's delegation includes the president of the Central Council of German Jews, Charlotte Knobloch, and prominent German scientists.
Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries, Economics Minister Michael Glos, Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung, Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen, Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Research Minister Annette Schavan are also travelling with Merkel.