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Germany

German Chancellor Merkel Begins Much Anticipated Visit to Israel

Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Israel on Sunday, March 16, for a highly symbolic three-day visit that should usher in a new phase in Germany's relations with the Jewish state 60 years after the Holocaust.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

Merkel was greeted at the airport by Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

Merkel was met at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who thanked the German leader for what her outstanding "friendship" and "deep understanding" of Israel's needs.

Merkel for her part said the visit would begin a "new chapter" in relations between the two states, who established full diplomatic ties in 1965.

The visit by Merkel, who is accompanied by a high-powered delegation of cabinet ministers, business leaders and scientists, is to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish state, which will be officially celebrated in May.

German and Israeli flags fly

Merkel's visit is believed by many to be of historic importance

"On the one hand we should never lose sight of our responsibility for the past -- and German policy never will -- on the other, we should look to the future of our relations" with Israel, Merkel said on the eve of her trip.

She said that anyone familiar with the history of the Nazi era and the Holocaust -- in which 6 million Jews lost their lives -- would know that Germany's stable and friendly relations with Israel today were "one of the miracles of history."

Apart from its symbolic value, however, the visit will also mark the start of annual consultations at cabinet level to be held between the two governments.

Merkel and her eight accompanying ministers are due to hold a joint meeting with the Israeli cabinet on Monday morning, in what is seen as a definite indication of the strengthening of the ties between the two countries.

On Tuesday, Merkel will speak in the Knesset, after 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.

Pressure to address Palestinian concerns

An Israeli soldier arrests a Palestinian youth during clashes which erupted during a protest against Israeli army operations in Gaza

Some politicians in Germany would want to see Merkel take a tougher stance against Israel

Ahead of her trip, however, Merkel came under pressure in Germany to use the visit to Israel to criticize the Jewish state over its settlement policy.

The head of the German-Israeli parliamentary group, the Greens politician Jerzy Montag, said Merkel should raise points of difference between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government and the Palestinians.

"The Chancellor should raise critical questions and make it clear that Israel should -- for both humanitarian reasons and out of long-term self-interest -- look for new solutions in the settlement question, the handling of the checkpoints and the general living conditions of the Palestinians," Montag said.

Social Democrat foreign policy spokesman Rolf Muetzenich seconded this view, while Werner Hoyer, a foreign policy spokesman for the liberal FDP regretted that Merkel was not seeing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during the visit.

Merkel' office said the chancellor had spoken to Abbas by phone on Friday concerning the status of the current talks initiated by US President George W. Bush at Annapolis last year.

International conference

Masked Hamas militants hold weapons during a protest against Israel's attacks on the Gaza Strip

Germany hopes to play a constructive role in resolving the Mideast conflict

Abbas had asked Merkel to raise the issue of Israeli plans to restart the building of settlements in East Jerusalem, saying that this was hampering the Annapolis process.

Merkel pledged to report back to the Palestinian leader on her return from Israel.

The Palestinian leader also welcomed a German proposal to hold a conference on the Middle East in Berlin in June with the aim of boosting efforts to build an effective judicial system and police force in a future Palestinian state.

Israel, the Palestinians and other Arab states as well as the United States, Russia, the UN and European Union members will be invited to the gathering.

German government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said that the event would not be a peace conference but a meeting to support the efforts of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in his role as a EU coordinator seeking to build a modern Palestinian state.

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