JERUSALEM - German Chancellor Angela Merkel earned a standing ovation from the Israeli parliament yesterday after pledging to stand by Israel's side against any threat, particularly from Iran, and paying tribute to victims of the Holocaust.
In an emotional speech, Merkel said Germans were still "filled with shame" about the Nazi genocide of six million Jews. Yet her extraordinarily warm reception in the Jewish state also signaled that the two nations are increasingly willing to look to the future.
Germany has proved a staunch ally of Israel, particularly since Merkel became chancellor in 2005. Israeli leaders say they are counting on Germany to take a lead in diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
"I think that we were able to open a new chapter in German-Israeli relations," Merkel later told Germany's n-tv television, brushing aside suggestions that her strong support for Israel could make Germany appear biased against the Palestinians.
"We're on Israel's side and, despite that and perhaps because of that, on the side of the peace process," she said.
She expressed support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also said Israel did not need unsolicited advice from outsiders.
Protests against her speaking in German to the Knesset were mild; in 2000, then-German President Johannes Rau broke that taboo. Just a handful of lawmakers stayed away yesterday, and even the most outspoken among them, Arye Eldad, said he considered Merkel a friend of Israel but could not bear hearing the language of the murderers of his grandparents.
Most Israelis appeared to be indifferent. For the first two days of Merkel's visit, newscasts were dominated by U.S. economic problems and their effects on Israel. But yesterday, the opening sentence of her Knesset speech, in which she thanked lawmakers in heavily accented Hebrew for the "great honor" of addressing them, received top billing.
Israel and Germany established diplomatic ties in 1965, two decades after the end of World War II. Since then, Germany has become Israel's second-largest trading partner and has paid $40 billion in reparations to Holocaust survivors in Israel.
On Monday, the two nations deepened their ties by agreeing to annual consultations of their cabinets.
Merkel's speech to parliament was the emotional highlight of her three-day trip. She was given a red-carpet welcome, with the German flag raised over the Knesset. About 1,000 guests attended the special session, including Holocaust survivors, Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders, and residents of Israeli towns targeted by rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.
In her speech, Merkel - who was born in 1954, nine years after the end of World War II - paid tribute to those killed by Nazi Germany. "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.