German FM calls on Israel to make tough decisions

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Photo - Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Sunday, February 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Ronen Zvulun, Pool)
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Sunday, February 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Ronen Zvulun, Pool)
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JERUSALEM (AP) — A day before German chancellor Angela Merkel and nearly her entire Cabinet arrive in Israel, her foreign minister published an op-ed in an Israeli newspaper Sunday encouraging Israel to take the "difficult but necessary decisions" to allow U.S.-led peace efforts to succeed.

Germany is Israel's closest European ally and the two governments hold a joint Cabinet session each year. But Israel has seen tensions rise of late with Europe, and also Germany, over its West Bank settlement policies.

In her weekly video message, Merkel made clear over the weekend that she would be pressing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the peace talks.

The European Union has been outspoken in its criticism of the settlements, saying Israeli construction of homes in occupied territories claimed by the Palestinians is undermining hopes for a negotiated peace settlement. Merkel's government has echoed the sentiments.

A small, but growing number of European businesses and investment funds also have cut ties with firms involved in West Bank settlements, and the EU's ambassador to Israel has warned the Jewish state faces increased isolation and threats of economic boycotts if peace talks collapse.

In his column, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that while Germany did not see eye-to-eye with Israel on all issues, it would stand by it.

He praised Israel's decision to enter negotiations with the Palestinians about the establishment of a Palestinian state.

"We support that vigorously and encourage Israel to make the difficult but necessary decisions," he wrote.

"Israel sometimes feels isolated and misunderstood. The current debate about Europe's policy toward Israel has once again brought those feelings into the foreground. But Israel does not stand alone," he added.

Asked about the threat of boycotts and sanctions, German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Sawsan Chebli, who is of Palestinian descent, said: "There are no sanctions against Israel and Germany would be the first country to oppose them."

Netanyahu said the peace talks, as well as international efforts to quell Iran's nuclear program, would figure prominently in his meetings with Merkel. Germany belongs to the group of nations that are currently negotiating with Iran.

The German delegation accompanying Merkel will be the largest German one ever to Israel and comes a year before the countries will mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations.

In March 2008, Merkel and her Cabinet marked 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.

Earlier this month though, lawmakers from a nationalist Israeli political party stormed out of parliament to object to comments by the visiting president of the European Parliament, who is German.

Martin Schulz enraged the lawmakers when he asked whether claims he had heard from a young Palestinian about Israel's control over water resources were true.

Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, demanded an apology. "I will not accept untruthful patronizing of the people of Israel in our parliament, certainly not in German," he said.

The figures cited by Schulz were indeed erroneous, but his general concern — that Israel consumes far more water than the Palestinians — was accurate, according to environmental groups.

The annual joint Cabinet meetings highlight the strong bond between Israel and Germany seven decades after the Holocaust, when Nazi Germany killed 6 million Jews.

The countries only established diplomatic relations in 1965, nearly two decades after the Holocaust. Germany has paid billions of dollars in reparations to Holocaust survivors, is a key trade partner and is now Israel's closest ally in Europe.

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