Last updated: 7 May, 2012

German president to make first state visit to Israel

New German President Joachim Gauck will make his first state visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories this month, his office said Monday, after tensions over Jewish settlements and a critical poem.

Gauck, a Lutheran pastor and former human rights activist in communist East Germany, will travel to the region May 28 for a four-day tour, his office said in a statement.

Details on his itinerary will be released shortly before the trip.

Gauck accepted an invitation by his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres extended shortly after the German head of state’s election in March.

His predecessor Christian Wulff, who resigned in February amid corruption allegations dating from his time as a state premier, made his first state visit to Israel in late 2010, five months after taking office.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been sharply critical of the Israeli government’s settlements policy in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, calling it an obstacle to fruitful peace talks with the Palestinians.

And last month German Nobel prize-winning author Gunter Grass sparked outrage when he published a poem in which he said he feared a nuclear-armed Israel “could wipe out the Iranian people” with a “first strike” and described the Jewish state as the region’s biggest threat to peace.

Although the work came in for widespread condemnation among the German political class, a subsequent move by the Israeli government to declare the 84-year-old author of “The Tin Drum” a persona non grata was also roundly criticised.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman hit out again on a visit to Berlin Monday, calling Grass a “Nazi sympathiser”, according to a written copy of a speech he was to give honouring a German publisher.

“However, recalling the case of Norwegian author Knut Hamsun, one realises that Grass is not the first Nazi sympathiser to have been awarded a Nobel prize,” Lieberman said, according to the manuscript.

Hamsun was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920 but later became an admirer of Adolf Hitler and a fervent supporter of the Nazi occupation of Norway during World War II.

Lieberman also attacked Grass’s six-decade-long silence about his membership in Hitler’s Waffen SS as a teenager at the end of the war, which he finally revealed in 2006.

A spokesman for Gauck said planning for the trip had begun before the controversy over Grass.