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Israeli hardliners 'will walk out' when Merkel addresses Knesset in German

By Donald Macintyre in Jerusalem

Plans for the German Chancellor Angela Merkel to address parliamentarians in Jerusalem in her native language next week have provoked rumbles of opposition from Israeli MPs on the far right – with one promising to walk out before she speaks.

A nine-member committee of the Knesset decided to waive normal precedent to allow Chancellor Merkel – widely regarded as one of Israel's staunchest European allies – to address the legislature even though she is a head of government and not a head of state.

One Knesset member, Arieh Eldad, who lost two grandparents and other relatives in the Holocaust, said: "German was the last language my grandmother and grandfather heard before they were murdered.

"The execution orders were given in German... I plan to stand up and leave."

Another member, Uri Ariel who, like Mr Eldad, is a member of the hard-right National Union party, and was in the two-person minority on the committee has also protested against the decision.

But Ilan Ostfeld, the spokesman for the Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, said Ms Merkel, who has visited Israel twice before as Chancellor and hosted a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Berlin last month, "is a very important European and world leader, and a great friend of Israel, and she asked to speak in German".

The opposition is not a new, since there were some opponents when, in 2000, the then President of Germany, Johannes Rau, spoke in German when he became the first German head of state to address the Knesset, delivering an impassioned appeal for "forgiveness for what Germans have done". Several Knesset members boycotted that address and another similar one five years later by the present President Horst Koehler.

The strongest Israeli opposition to the notably close political, diplomatic and cultural ties with modern Germany has, in the past, tended to come less from Jews of German origin than from those whose families came from Poland – such as Mr Eldad, who refuses to buy German goods or visit Germany.

Dr Lars Hansel, director of the German Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Jerusalem, said last night that its polling indicated elderly German Jews in Israel who had lost "big parts of their family" in the Holocaust were strongly in favour of close ties with modern Germany – while younger Israelis showed relatively little interest in Germany or the rest of Europe.

Covering the Knesset committee vote, the German news service Spiegel Online also noted that the now merged National Religious Party – National Unions was "a joint conservative party whose members support settlers' movements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank" and that Ms Merkel's government has called Israeli settlements in those territories "not acceptable" and a hindrance to peace.

Equally the Jerusalem Post, during the Chancellor's visit last year, quoted Palestinian officials as criticising Ms Merkel's "pro-Israel" stance and for declining to meet families of Palestinian prisoners or tour Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem.

Israel only agreed to diplomatic ties with Germany in 1965, 17 years after its foundation as a state – and after considerable debate. The works of Richard Wagner, the anti-Semitic German composer much honoured by the Nazis, are barred from broadcast on state-run Israel Radio.

Germany has paid an estimated $25bn (£13bn) in reparations to Israeli Holocaust survivors.

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