German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier arrived in Israel on Saturday night at the start of a three-day trip just days after a row between Germany’s foreign minister and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Soon after his arrival, Steinmeier met with President Reuven Rivlin for dinner. His office said he would meet Netanyahu on Sunday. On Monday he will call on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at his Ramallah headquarters in the West Bank.
It is Steinmeier’s first visit to Israel since taking up the post in March, although he has made the trip before while serving as foreign minister.
Last month Netanyahu canceled a planned meeting with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in response to the latter’s refusal to cancel a sit-down with left-wing Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence.
The NGO publishes anonymous testimonies of former combat soldiers alleging human rights violations by Israeli troops stationed in the Palestinian territories. Gabriel also met with B’Tselem, another NGO that deals with human rights issues and strongly opposes Israeli settlement building.
Steinmeier is not expected to meet with Breaking the Silence. But according to a report on Spiegel Online, he will make a point of stressing the importance of critical civil society organizations for the country’s democracy during a speech Sunday evening at the Hebrew University.
Citing anonymous sources close to the president, Germany’s leading online news site reported that Steinmeier will say that groups such as Breaking The Silence and B’Tselem should not be viewed as treasonous but as making Israel’s democracy stronger.
During Netanyahu’s standoff with Gabriel, the prime minister’s office said: “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.”
Relations between Israel and Germany have been frosty recently. Earlier this year, Chancellor Angela Merkel postponed bilateral 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.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.