Monday, January 18, 2010

Israeli government convenes for 1st time in Berlin

AP foreign, Monday January 18 2010 ARON HELLER Associated Press Writer= BERLIN (AP) — Israel's government convened for the first time in Berlin, the former heart of the Nazi regime, for a special joint session with the German government highlighting the nations' bond six decades after the Holocaust. High on the agenda Monday 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 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin 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." Israel was established three years after the end of World War II. Since then, 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. Before the delegation visited Germany's Holocaust memorial, two nations signed an agreement to provide assistance to developing nations, particularly in Africa. "There is great symbolism from a moral standpoint that nations with such a difficult history are now cooperating together," said Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, after the signing. 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. Israeli Science Minister Daniel Hershkowitz, whose parents both survived the Holocaust, said the trip was had a special symbolism for him. "We don't forget the past ... but today Germany is a great friend," he said, after viewing the Holocaust memorial — 2,700 gray slabs that serve as a tribute to the Holocaust's 6 million Jewish victims. "This is the answer to those who 70 years ago wanted to eliminate us."


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