Will German president defy Netanyahu, meet Breaking the Silence?
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Will German president defy Netanyahu, meet Breaking the Silence?

Amid nadir in ties after FM's visit, Frank-Walter Steinmeier due in Israel at the weekend; held talks with left-wing NGO on previous trip as minister

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier deliver joint statements to the media before their meeting in Jerusalem on November 16, 2014. (Photo credit: AFP  / POOL / RONEN ZVULUN)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier deliver joint statements to the media before their meeting in Jerusalem on November 16, 2014. (Photo credit: AFP / POOL / RONEN ZVULUN)

Amid a deepening crisis in bilateral ties, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is set to arrive in Israel next week, and it is currently unclear whether he will meet with the controversial Breaking the Silence NGO and thus risk being boycotted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu last week canceled a planned meeting with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel when the latter refused to cancel a sit-down with Breaking the Silence.

The schedule for Steinmeier’s three-day visit has not been completed, German and Israeli officials told The Times of Israel on Monday, refusing to comment on the possibility that Netanyahu would decline to meet the German head of state.

Steinmeier, who became Germany’s president in March, is landing on Saturday. So far, a meeting with Netanyahu is part of Steinmeier’s preliminary schedule. But Netanyahu’s new policy to shun foreign dignitaries who meet with Breaking the Silence puts a question mark over the planned encounter.

President Reuven Rivlin, who met Gabriel last week, will host Steinmeier for a working lunch on Sunday, after which the German guest will answer questions from the traveling press.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (R) meets with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the President's residence in Jerusalem, Israel on May 31, 2015. (Photo by Mark Neyman/GPO)
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (R) meets with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the President’s residence in Jerusalem, Israel on May 31, 2015. (Photo by Mark Neyman/GPO)

According to Der Spiegel, one of the few confirmed items on Steinmeier’s itinerary is a speech at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem focusing on “the threats facing both German and Israeli democracy.”

In his previous position as foreign minister, Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, did meet with Breaking the Silence, which publishes anonymous testimony of Israeli soldiers alleging human rights violations against Palestinians in the West Bank. Germany’s former president, Joachim Gauck, has on previous trips to Israel also met the group.

Last week, already strained Germany-Israel relations hit a new low when Netanyahu boycotted Gabriel due to his refusal to cancel his scheduled meeting with Breaking the Silence.

The controversy over Gabriel then intensified when, in a newspaper op-ed, he said that “the Social Democrats were, like Jews, the first victims of the Holocaust.” His office later corrected that sentence, replacing the word “Holocaust” with “Nazism.”

Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial authority, which Gabriel had visited on Holocaust Remembrance Day last week, condemned Gabriel for appearing to compare the suffering of Jews and Social Democrats during the Nazi era. “It is very unfortunate that an unnecessary and historically incorrect statement found its way into the political storm,” it said, according to Yedioth Ahronoth.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel arrives for a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 25, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel arrives for a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 25, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ties between Jerusalem and Berlin were further strained this week by Germany’s efforts to create a European consensus on a resolution critical of Israel to be passed Tuesday at UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency.

The Arab group at UNESCO has agreed to soften the text of its biannual resolution lambasting Israel for purported activities in and around Jerusalem’s Old City in exchange for abstentions from all EU member states. According to Israeli officials, who want Western nations to vote against the text, Germany was a driving force behind the Arab-European agreement that would see all EU states abstain.

Berlin’s move at UNESCO preceded the spat over Gabriel, but the fact that Netanyahu publicly snubbed the German foreign minister certainly did not help ease the tensions, Israeli officials said this week.

Relations between Berlin and Jerusalem have been frosty for years. Earlier this year, Merkel postponed joint Israeli-German government consultations originally planned for May 10, citing scheduling difficulties ahead of national elections in September. However, she did find time to host Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas last month. In private conversations, German and Israeli officials acknowledged that Merkel’s cancellation was due to her frustration over Israeli legislation to retroactively authorize illegal West Bank outposts.

The latest saga started when Netanyahu’s office presented Gabriel with an ultimatum ahead of his first visit to Israel as foreign minister: Either he canceled his planned meeting with Breaking the Silence, or he would be disinvited from the Prime Minister’s Office. But Gabriel, a seasoned politician from Germany’s main center-left party, insisted on the meeting.

The German foreign minister said he regretted Netanyahu’s decision, but added that it is “no catastrophe” and that bilateral relations will remain unchanged.

“In the past, the German embassy always invited them [Breaking the Silence],” Gabriel said Tuesday in his first reaction to Netanyahu’s snub. “There were never any difficulties; they were even once on the guest list of the federal president, therefore [the cancellation] came as a surprise to us.”

A spokesperson for Chancellor Angela Merkel said she found Netanyahu’s snub of Gabriel “regrettable.” Talks with non-governmental organizations were common during foreign travel and should not set off a rift between allies, he said. “It should not be problematic for foreign visitors to meet with critical representatives of civil society.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrive for talks at the Chancellery in Berlin, Thursday Dec. 6 (photo credit: AP/Wolfgang Rattayl)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting in Berlin (AP/Wolfgang Rattayl)

But Netanyahu said that Breaking the Silence, which relies on anonymous testimonies to accuse Israeli soldiers of serious human rights violations, was beyond the pale.

“Diplomats are welcome to meet with representatives of civil society but Prime Minister Netanyahu will not meet with those who lend legitimacy to organizations that call for the criminalization of Israeli soldiers,” his office declared.

His position was seen as broadly popular in the Israeli public and was supported by most right-wing and even centrist politicians. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely branded the NGO an “enemy,” saying it was worse than other pro-Palestinian groups since, she said, it seeks to get Israel’s soldiers prosecuted for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

This incident was not the first time a visiting dignitary’s meeting with leftist NGOs caused irritation in Jerusalem.

In February, Netanyahu instructed the Foreign Ministry to reprimand the Belgian ambassador to Israel because the country’s prime minister, Charles Michel, had met with Breaking the Silence and another dovish NGO, B’Tselem, a visit Jerusalem “views with utmost gravity,” according to a statement the PMO issued at the time.

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