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Merkel strengthens ties with Israel

During a three-day state visit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced her support for Israel in it's battle against terrorism and laid a wreath at the Holocaust memorial. On Tuesday, she will become the fist German Chancellor to address the Knesset.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday underlined her country's support for Israel and largely sidestepped questions about controversial Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

"Germany is aware that Israel must fight daily for its right to exist," Merkel said after a first-ever joint Israeli-German ministerial meeting.

As Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stressed settlement actvity will continue, Merkel, who was in Israel to mark the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state, would only say the issue was a complex one.

"The practical situation is more complicated than the way one sees it from afar," Merkel said in response to a question after a joint news conference.

While she declined to go into details at the news conference, she said she and Olmert had "open and very direct" talks on the issue, widely seen as a major hurdle in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

But Olmert stressed Israel will continue settlement construction in annexed east Jerusalem.

"There are places that we will not give up as part of a final (peace) agreement and that is why there is no reason that we stop building there," he said, alluding to large Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank.

Merkel focused largely on bilateral issues, but asked about almost daily rocket fire launched at southern Israel by Palestinian militants in Gaza, she said: "there are conditions that don't make talks any easier."

In a joint statement, Merkel and Olmert underlined bilateral cooperation in "the fight against international terrorism."

"Cross-border terror networks can only be countered through joint action by the international community."

The two sides also discussed Iran's controversial nuclear policies.

"Israel and Germany share the same serious concerns over Iran's efforts to obtain a nuclear arsenal," Olmert said.

"We also agreed on the need to continue establishing a series of measures to halt this process," he said.

In a highlight of her largely symbolic visit, Merkel laid a wreath at Israel's Holocaust memorial earlier in the day.

Accompanied by Olmert and several Israeli ministers, a sombre-faced Merkel turned up the eternal flame in the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem memorial before laying a wreath and pausing for several seconds of silence.

Dressed in a black suit, Merkel -- the first German chancellor born after World War II -- also visited the Children's Memorial and signed the guestbook at the end of her third visit to Yad Vashem since taking office.

"In view of Germany's responsibility for the Shoah (Holocaust), the German government... underlines its determination to build a future together," she said.

On Tuesday, Merkel will become the first German chancellor to address the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, an honour normally reserved for heads of state.

Upon arrival on Sunday, she visited the grave and home of Israel's founder and first prime minister David Ben Gurion at the Sde Boker kibbutz in the heart of the Negev desert.

Her three-day visit is designed to mark the 60th anniversary of the creation of Israel, which will be officially celebrated in May.

More than six decades since the Holocaust, in which the Nazis killed six million Jews, Germany is Israel's most important political and trading partner in Europe.

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