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German president won’t meet Breaking the Silence — report

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who arrives in Israel on Saturday, is expected to praise left-wing group in speech at Jerusalem university

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

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier addresses the media after talks in Berlin on October 15, 2015. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP)
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier addresses the media after talks in Berlin on October 15, 2015. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP)

Germany’s president will reportedly not meet with the Breaking the Silence group during his upcoming trip to Israel, but will make a point of stressing the importance of critical civil society organizations for the country’s democracy.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier is scheduled to deliver a speech Sunday evening at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem about dangers to democracy in which he will praise the controversial NGO, Spiegel Online reported.

Last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a planned meeting with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in response to the latter’s refusal to cancel a sit-down with Breaking the Silence.

The NGO publishes anonymous testimonies of former combat soldiers alleging human rights violations by Israeli troops stationed in the Palestinian territories.

According to the report, Steinmeier, who has met with Breaking the Silence in his previous position as foreign minister, is expected to quote from a speech famed Israeli novelist Amos Oz gave last year at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in which he praised the organization lavishly. In his November speech, Oz compared the members of Breaking the Silence to the biblical prophets, who were often reviled for criticizing the political leaders of their time.

Citing anonymous sources close to the president, Germany’s leading online news site reports 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. Steinmeier will stress that the real danger to democracy is not groups that criticize the government but rather forces that want to sweep painful truths under the carpet, the site said.

During Netanyahu’s standoff with Gabriel, his 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.”

This combination of pictures created on April 25, 2017 shows German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel (L) on April 25, 2017 and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on March 5, 2017. (GALI TIBBON, ABIR SULTAN / EPA POOL / AFP)
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel (L) on April 25, 2017 and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on March 5, 2017. (GALI TIBBON, ABIR SULTAN / EPA POOL / AFP)

By praising Breaking the Silence in a speech but not meeting them, Steinmeier avoids crossing Netanyahu’s red line but still makes his point and backs Gabriel’s stance.

Steinmeier does plan to meet other leftist civil society organizations, his spokesperson told Spiegel Online.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had supported her foreign minister’s decision not to cancel his planned meeting with Breaking the Silence, does not think Steinmeier is distancing himself from the German government’s position, according to the report. A new scandal over the German president’s visit would only help Netanyahu, unnamed government sources told the site.

The Germans do expect Netanyahu to make domestic political hay of Steinmeier’s decision not to meet with Breaking the Silence, presenting it as a victory for his hardline policies. But that is a price Berlin will have to pay for preventing another scandal, according to the sources.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a joint press conference at the King David hotel in Jerusalem on February 25, 2014 (AFP/Menahem Kahana)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a joint press conference at the King David hotel in Jerusalem on February 25, 2014 (AFP/Menahem Kahana)

Relations between Israel and Germany have been frosty recently. Earlier this year, 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.

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 was “no catastrophe” and that bilateral relations would remain unchanged.

“In the past, the German embassy always invited them [Breaking the Silence],” Gabriel said in a first response 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.”

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