Speech to the Knesset, 24 June 2015
Distinguished Members of the Knesset,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Todá rabá al HaHasmaná WeKabalát HaPaním HaY'didutít.
Seh kavód ráv awurí ledabér lifnechém kann bis'fát HaÉm schelí.
(Thank you for your kind invitation and warm welcome. It is a very great honour to address you here in the Knesset in my mother tongue.)
It is a great privilege, and also a pleasure, to speak to the representatives of Israel, home to Jews from all over the world, here in the Knesset, the beating heart of a strong democratic state, an open and free society, and the only functioning democracy in the Middle East. I am deeply moved, Mr Speaker, by the warmth of your welcome and by the degree of ceremony accorded to me, for I am aware that a guard of honour for the President of a foreign Parliament, especially from Germany, especially here in the Knesset, and especially with a performance of the German national anthem are not honours which should be taken for granted. The welcome that I was privileged to receive during my first official visit in 2007 remains one of the most profound and intense experiences of my life as a politician. On behalf of my colleagues in the presidium of the Bundestag, too, please accept my sincere thanks for your kind invitation.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Like many Germans, I feel a deep connection to your country. I have abiding memories of encounters with Israeli citizens, young and old, with academics, artists and politicians – encounters which made a profound impression on me. I have particularly vivid recollections of the meetings during my first visit to Israel in 1981, when I was a young MP, newly elected to the German Bundestag. There was a tangible reticence and what was obviously a “wait and see” attitude towards us German MPs – an attitude which then, as now, I understood only too well. It was only 15 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries – and only a generation since Germans had waged an unprecedented war of annihilation with the specific aim of extinguishing Jewish life in Europe. Many of your parliamentary colleagues at the time had personally experienced the Shoah. On 8 May this year, we held a ceremony of remembrance in the German Bundestag to mark the end of the senseless murder and Germany’s defeat in the Second World War 70 years ago – a defeat which freed us Germans too from a regime which held human life and dignity in utter contempt.
One of the special experiences during my visit in 1981, which has burned itself into my memory, was a discussion of how relations between our two countries could “normalise”. Even at the time, I was convinced that relations between our two countries could never be normal. Nor should they be. Indeed, they should never be allowed to become “normal”. In light of the fateful history which connects our two countries, “our normal relations should remain special relations for ever,” as Federal President Joachim Gauck put it, and to quote the words of Amos Oz, Israel’s great writer, “intensive, yes, but not normal”.
The intensity of the friendly relations between our two countries is indeed one of history’s miracles. It is thanks especially to the authority of two great elder statesmen, Konrad Adenauer and David Ben-Gurion, a dual stroke of good fortune in our countries’ respective histories. Immediately after the founding of the State of Israel from the ashes of the Holocaust and the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany from the ruins of the Nazi regime, they had the foresight and the resolution to embark on a new beginning. As early as 1952, our two countries signed an agreement which, although it could not make good those things which can never be made good, nonetheless marked the start of a rapprochement on both sides, and culminated in the exchange of official ambassadors on 12 May 1965. In Germany last month, on the 50th anniversary of this historic event, your President acknowledged how difficult it had been for him personally to accept the establishment of diplomatic relations with Germany, even though he understood their significance. President Reuven Rivlin drew attention to the political rationalism and pragmatism which prevailed in the early years, in order to illustrate with even greater clarity how, over the course of the years, these relations have grown and matured into a genuine partnership and friendship.
Today, relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and Israel are “the bridge built across the ravine” of our shared history, an image vividly evoked by Shimon Peres during his memorable speech in the German Bundestag five years ago. But this bridge needs pillars and foundations – and those we have, in the form of shared values, which are the basis of our close relationship today. They form the basis for the intensive political cooperation between our two countries, and provide a firm foundation for the lively and mutually rewarding cultural exchanges, the intensive and ever-increasing trade relations and the numerous partnerships between our countries’ universities and scholars. More than 100 twinning links have also been established between our two countries’ towns and cities. Berlin and Tel Aviv exert a magnetic attraction for young people from the other country, bearing witness to the changes in the relations between our societies and their enduring appeal for future generations.
We are especially grateful, too, that after the traumatic experiences of National Socialist dictatorship and the Holocaust, Jewish life has once again resumed in Germany. This is the most wonderful declaration of trust that the Federal Republic – the second democracy in German history – could ever hope for. So it is even more shameful that today, incidents of antisemitism are still occurring everywhere in Europe, which we must be resolute in curbing. Next year, we will be hosting in Berlin a conference of the Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism (ICCA), for we recognise that nowhere in the world has antisemitism had more devastating consequences than in Germany. I have said many times in the plenary of the German Bundestag, and I say again here: antisemitism, wherever it occurs, is unacceptable, and in Germany, it is unbearable.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Notwithstanding all the differences that result from our history, religion and culture and our geographical location in world regions with their own specific crises, conflicts and challenges, Israel and Germany have much in common. Germans and Israelis bear a special responsibility in the regions in which they live: Germany in Europe, Israel in the Middle East. The challenges that they face are, however, very different, and I would not wish to gloss over the fact that my country is in a doubly privileged position: it is surrounded, without exception, by friends and democratically governed countries. Even today, this still cannot be said of Israel.
Both societies, German and Israeli alike, also have a political culture which does not shy away from conflict between divergent views and interests. On the contrary, it is seen as being the healthy expression of a pluralistic and open society. In Israel and in Germany, Parliament is the forum in which conflicts are openly discussed. The Knesset is the place for the democratic resolution of conflicts and for reaching fair and binding solutions that enjoy majority support.
But differences of opinion do not only exist in Parliament, between the different political camps and parliamentary groups. They also exist between Parliaments. Naming these differences and discussing them openly and honestly, rather than simply tacitly enduring them, is the hallmark of a true partnership. Criticism is legitimate, and sometimes essential, also – indeed, especially – among friends.
A quarter century after the fall of the Iron Curtain, borders within Europe, within the European Union, have lost much of their significance. That is not the case everywhere. And so we understand Israel’s concerns, for it still lacks secure borders. We believe that Israel must have the same right as its neighbours to live within internationally recognised borders, free from fear, terror and violence. At the same time, we do not ignore the fact that Israel’s share in the responsibility for conditions in the Palestinian territories is also an issue of relevance in this context. The necessary debate must be conducted, first and foremost, here in Israel, and is already taking place. It is contentious, sometimes impassioned, always democratic, and it is taking place within society and particularly here in the Knesset.
The issue of lasting peace for the region is one which also concerns the international community, however, and it concerns us Germans. We stand by our special historical responsibility towards the State of Israel. This historical responsibility is part of my country’s raison d’être, as Angela Merkel said from this lectern. The Chancellor has repeatedly pointed out that lasting and permanent security for Israel can only be achieved within the framework of a stable peace with its Arab neighbours. I say again: much is negotiable, but Israel’s right to exist is not. However, a negotiated solution is needed in order to end the conflict with the Palestinians. A stable, peaceful and democratic Palestinian state is in Israel’s long-term security interests, and we believe it is the only way to guarantee lasting peace for the region as a whole. This position, advocated by the German Government, is also supported by a large majority across all parties in the German Bundestag.
Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues,
Since 2008, our two countries have held annual intergovernmental consultations, which generate significant impetus. The intensive links between our two countries’ Parliaments deepen our mutual understanding. This year, we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of German unity, and I mention this specifically because in 1990, two German Presidents of Parliament visited Israel together and reaffirmed the responsibility borne by Germany as a whole towards the Jewish state. Rita Süssmuth, the President of the German Bundestag, and Sabine Bergmann-Pohl, the President of the first freely elected People’s Chamber of the GDR, travelled to Jerusalem in order to assuage fears about German reunification and ask for understanding. Dov Shilansky was the Speaker of the Knesset at the time. He had lost his entire family in the Holocaust and had made it clear that he would not shake a German’s hand. But he met with the German representatives for nearly two hours and concluded the meeting by shaking their hands. It was an emotional moment for everyone who witnessed it, for it encapsulated the state of German-Israeli relations in general and parliamentary relations in particular.
The close and trustful relations between the Knesset and the Bundestag are reflected, not least, in regular reciprocal visits, participation in the International Parliamentary Scholarship programme (IPS) and the exchange of parliamentary staff. A great many personal friendships have evolved from these links over the years.
The meetings of parliamentary presidiums today here in Jerusalem and at the end of the year in Berlin are a visible expression of our desire to further deepen and intensify these relations. We are able and we need to discuss also political developments in both our countries, especially when we either do not understand them or observe them with concern. The agreement to establish an annual parliamentary forum for regular discussion of topical bilateral issues sends an important message. It also underlines the key role played by our Parliaments in further developing relations between our two countries.
Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues,
Friendships cannot be earned. Friendships are a gift, not an entitlement – certainly not between Germany and Israel. But friendships need careful nurturing. And in this spirit, we would very much like to further consolidate and develop our relations. In this very special year for German-Israeli relations, we are proud of our close partnership and friendship. But we also recognise their true essence: they create responsibilities and are an ongoing task.
Anáchnu asiréy todá awúr HaY'didút schelánu WeGe'ím BaSchutafút schelánu.
(We are grateful for our friendship and proud of our partnership.)
Todá rabá. Schalom.
(Thank you. Shalom.)