German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Israel's parliament on Tuesday that her countrymen are "filled with shame" over the Holocaust and that she bows before the victims of the Nazi genocide.
In an emotional speech delivered in German, Merkel said her country will always be committed to Israel's security, particularly in light of growing threats from Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other leaders have repeatedly appealed for Germany's help in halting Iran's nuclear program.
Merkel's address capped a three-day visit to Israel to mark the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding. Israel pulled out all the stops for Merkel, a staunch ally, raising the German flag over its parliament in a red carpet ceremony that drove home the two nations' growing alliance six decades after the Holocaust. At the end of Merkel's 20-minute speech, legislators gave her a standing ovation.
Lawmakers made special allowances for Merkel to address them, even though she's not a head of state. A handful of the 120 lawmakers stayed away, including one who said he could not bear to hear the language spoken by the murderers of his grandparents.
On Monday, Israeli and German Cabinet ministers held a historic joint session, a first for Israel, and the two nations approved a series of cooperative projects. Germany already is Israel's second-largest trade partner, after the U.S., and since the two nations formed diplomatic relations in 1965, Germany has paid $39.4 billion to Holocaust survivors in Israel.
'I bow before the victims'
Merkel opened her speech with a Hebrew sentence, thanking the parliament for giving her the "great honor" of addressing them in German. She immediately paid tribute to those killed by Nazi Germany during World War II.
"The mass murder of six million Jews, carried out in the name of Germany, has brought indescribable suffering to the Jewish people, Europe and the entire world," she said.
"The Shoah fills us Germans with shame. I bow before the victims. I bow before the survivors and before all those who helped them survive," she said, using the Hebrew word for Holocaust.
About 1,000 guests listened to Merkel, including Holocaust survivors, Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders, former Israeli presidents and residents of Israeli towns targeted by rocket fire from Gaza. The Israeli public has largely responded with indifference to Merkel's visit.
Over the years, German leaders have avoided criticizing Israel in public, even when others took the Jewish state to task for some of its policies toward the Palestinians. On Monday, Merkel would not be drawn into criticism over Israel's continued settlement expansion, even as Olmert, standing by her side, announced that construction would not stop.
Merkel grew up in former East Germany, the daughter of a pastor. In her speech, she referred to her former country's refusal to take responsibility for the Holocaust; until unification in 1990, that task was shouldered by West Germany alone.
She said Communist East Germany considered the Nazi past as a West German problem. "It took 40 years until the entire Germany ... acknowledged its responsibility for history and for the state of Israel," she said.
Iran cited as she was introduced
Introducing Merkel, Israeli leaders repeatedly called on Germany never to forget the victims of the Holocaust, and appealed to her to do everything she could to stop Iran's nuclear program.
Israel believes Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, a fear underscored by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's frequent calls for Israel to disappear. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful.
Olmert praised Merkel's "strong and determined position against the horrific calls from the president of Iran to wipe Israel off the map and against Tehran's trickery and deceit," he said.
Merkel said Germany would always stand by Israel, and that Germany must speak out against racism and anti-Semitism. She promised to be vigilant about Iran's nuclear program, which Israel and the West believe is intended to produce weapons.
She expressed support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also said Israel does not need unsolicited advice from outsiders.
Germany, like other European nations, has little influence on the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks — 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. Merkel is not meeting Palestinian leaders during her current trip to Israel.