German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier openly criticizes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision last month to cancel a meeting with the German Foreign Minister after the latter refused to cancel a sit-down with Breaking the Silence, an NGO that collects anonymous testimonies from IDF soldiers on alleged human rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“I do believe that anyone who uses his voice, who expresses criticism, but at the same time respects the voice of others, is a ‘traitor of the people,'” Steinmeir tells an audience at Hebrew University, quoting a phrase some right-wing lawmakers have used to describe Breaking the Silence. “For that reason, I believe that civil-society organizations which are part of the social debate deserve our respect as democrats, even when they take a critical view of a government – in Germany, but also here in Israel.”
Steinmeir says that the German and Israeli Governments “have taken very different views” on what constitutes legitimate criticism.
“I have thought long and hard about what this means for my visit to Israel today. To be frank, quite a lot of people told me this was the wrong time for a trip to Israel. Some thought it would be more appropriate to cancel, or at least postpone the trip,” he says. “Perhaps that might even have been the easier solution for me. But I decided otherwise. Not because I find your prime minister’s decision to cancel his meeting with Germany’s foreign minister correct. But because I believe that it would not be in keeping with my responsibilities if I were to let relations between our two countries move deeper into a cul-de-sac, at the end of which all sides will have lost very much: Our two countries are bound by a terrible past.”
Concluding his critique of the decision, Steinmeier suggests that silencing voices of protest deligitimizes democratic societies.
“We are democrats, and as democrats we want to prove that the others – the autocrats, the totalitarians, the self-styled ‘strong men’ who decry the efforts and endeavors of democracy and are unaware of the value of compromise, and who parade their very simple answers of brute force – quite simply do not have the better answers. Why do I believe that? Because democracy is able to take a critical look at itself, and to correct itself. Autocrats are not!”