Israel’s Merkel and Bennett diverge on Iran and the Palestinians

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JERUSALEM (AP) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel received a warm welcome on Sunday as she made a final official visit to Israel, but differences quickly emerged between close allies on key issues of Iran’s nuclear program and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Merkel said Germany remains committed to reviving the international nuclear deal with Iran – a move Israel opposes. She also said that Germany believes a two-state solution remains the best way to end the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

“Personally, I think on this point, although at this point it seems almost hopeless, the idea of ​​a two-state solution should not be taken off the table, it should not be buried … and the Palestinians must be able to live in safety in a state, ”Merkel said at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. She also said that building Israeli settlements in occupied territories sought by Palestinians was of no use.

Bennett, a former settler leader who opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, quickly backtracked.

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

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

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

At every stop she was greeted as a “true friend” of Israel. She has repeatedly professed Germany’s commitment to Israel’s security and said she is confident that the next German government – which will be determined in lengthy coalition talks following inconclusive elections last month – would take a similar position.

“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 to focus on Iran’s nuclear program. While the two leaders have both vowed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, they have expressed different approaches on how to do so.

Germany was a major player in the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran. The deal fell apart after then-President Donald Trump, with Israel’s backing, withdrew from the deal in 2018. The Biden administration attempted to revive this deal – known as name of JCPOA – despite Israeli objections.

“I never saw the JCPOA as ideal, but it’s better than not having an agreement,” Merkel said. She said the situation is “very difficult” as Iran continues to enrich uranium. She called on the world powers that negotiated the deal, including Russia and China, to hold talks. “We are facing critical weeks around this issue,” she said.

Israel views Iran as its greatest enemy, citing the country’s military presence in neighboring Syria and its support for hostile militant groups in the region. He accuses Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons – a charge Iran denies – and says that 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, ”Bennett said, accusing Iran of trying to delay further arms efforts. “This is a critical moment and Germany’s position is particularly important. ”

Talks on Iran were to continue throughout the day. Merkel has also scheduled a stop at Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem.

Earlier, Merkel called it “a fluke” that after the Holocaust tragedy, in which German Nazi leaders oversaw the murder of 6 million European Jews, “it was possible to reset and restore relations between Germany and Israel to the extent that we have done so.

Israel was formed in the aftermath of the Holocaust in 1948, and the two countries did not establish diplomatic relations until 1965. But over the decades, those ties have warmed.

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

Merkel and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a cool relationship due to poor personal chemistry and differences over the Palestinian issue. But these differences have done little to upset the larger partnership.

Merkel was not expected to meet with Netanyahu, who is now the leader of the Israeli opposition. She also had no plans to meet with Palestinian leaders in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Merkel was due to visit in August, but the trip was postponed after the crisis in Afghanistan in which the Taliban seized power. She then postponed the visit until after the German elections last month. She now remains in office on an interim basis until a new government is formed, a process that could take weeks or even months.

Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union had its worst election result in the September 26 vote and party leader Armin Laschet has indicated he is ready to step down.

Center-left Social Democrats, Green environmentalists and pro-business Free Democrats held their first round of talks on Thursday on the formation of a possible coalition. If they are successful, the alliance would send Merkel’s bloc into opposition.

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Associated Press correspondents Isaac Scharf in Jerusalem, Karin Laub in Amman, Jordan, and Geir Moulson in Berlin, contributed reporting.

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