( dpa )- German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Israel Sunday for a three-day visit to mark the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding and said she hoped her trip would usher in a new phase in the relationship between the two countries.
Speaking through a translator at a welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, Merkel said her visit was taking place in the awareness "of Germany's special responsibility" for Israel's right to exist.
Declaring herself "very grateful" to open a "new chapter" in German-Israeli relations, she said that her discussions with her hosts would focus on future projects that would create a better world of "freedom, peace and cooperation."
Germany, she said, was conscious of the threats Israel had faced in its 60 years of existence, had an "everlasting responsibility " to the Jewish state and would be pleased to contribute to bringing an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to a solution of two states living side by side.
Prior to leaving Germany, Merkel had stressed that Israel's right to exist was a constant of German foreign policy.
Anyone who knew the history of the Holocaust also knew that the stable and friendly ties between Israel and Germany formed one of the "wonders of history," she said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who headed the delegation of Israeli dignitaries who greeted Merkel at the airport, thanked the German leader for her "exceptional" friendship and "deep understanding" of Israel's diplomatic and security needs.
The two leaders were slated to have dinner Sunday night, and were also to hold talks in Jerusalem on Monday morning.
Prior to the visit, officials said controversial themes such as Israel's recent announcement that 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.
From the airport, Merkel flew by helicopter to the Negev desert where she laid a wreath at the grave of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, who is buried at his kibbutz, Sde Boker, about 30 kilometres south of Beersheeba. She was accompanied by Israeli President Shimon Peres, once a political disciple of Ben-Gurion.
The choice of Sde Boker as Merkel's first stop on her tour was highly symbolic, since it at was at the kibbutz, where Ben-Gurion retired in 1963 after resigning the premiership, that the Israeli elder statesman met German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, Germany's first post-war chancellor, in 1966.
The two men had been instrumental in normalizing relations between the two countries, often in the face of fierce opposition.
After the wreath-laying, Merkel toured Ben-Gurion's modest quarters at the kibbutz, guided by Noa Valkden, Peres' granddaughter.
She also met with kibbutz members, asking such questions as whether they toured the desert on camels or in jeeps, whether kibbutz children returned to the commune after completing army service, and how many hens were bred in the hen house.
Before leaving for Jerusalem and dinner with Olmert, she said she "may" join kibbutz members on their tours of the desert during her next visit.
Merkel is accompanied on her visit by a high-powered delegation of cabinet ministers, including Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, business leaders and scientists.
On Monday, she and her ministers are due to hold a joint meeting with the Israeli cabinet in what is seen as a definite indication of the strengthening of the ties between the two countries, and marks the start of annual consultations at the cabinet level to be held between the two governments.
Germany currently holds similar consultations only with France, Italy, Spain, Poland and Russia.
The climax of the visit, and for many the highlight, will come Tuesday afternoon, when Merkel is scheduled to address the Knesset, the first speech to the Israeli parliament by a German chancellor.
The chamber modified its regulations, which stipulate that only a visiting head of state, as opposed to head of government, may speak to the body.
The invitation sparked outrage among a minority of legislators, who, citing the Nazi genocide of 6 million Jews during World War II, said it was inappropriate for the chancellor to speak German in the Knesset.
The Knesset House Committee, in a vote last week, overruled the protests.
Although Israel and Germany only established diplomatic relations in 1965, ties between the two countries go back to the 1950s when, in what became known as the Luxembourg Agreement signed by then- Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and then-Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, Bonn committed itself to pay 3.5 billion German marks in compensation to Jewish victims of the Nazis.
In 1965, after months of negotiations, the two countries established formal diplomatic ties and German ambassador to Israel Rolf Pauls and Israeli ambassador to Germany Asher Ben-Natan presented their letters of accreditation on August 18 and August 24 respectively.