Netanyahu cancels talks with Germany over minister’s meeting with rights groups

Update: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to cancel talks set for Tuesday with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel over the visiting diplomat's plan to also meet rights groups critical of Israel's government.

Netanyahu cancels talks with Germany over minister's meeting with rights groups
Sigmar Gabriel in Jerusalem. Photo: DPA

Netanyahu's meeting with Sigmar Gabriel was cancelled after the German diplomat decided to go ahead with talks with Israeli rights groups Breaking The Silence and B'Tselem.

Gabriel held a joint meeting with the rights groups in the evening, a spokesman for B'Tselem told AFP, without giving further details.

Breaking The Silence seeks to document alleged Israeli military abuses in the Palestinian territories, while B'Tselem has worked on a range of issues and has strongly opposed Israeli settlement building.

Cancelling the meeting was a rare step, but in line with the current right-wing government's stance against groups it accuses of having political agendas and of unfairly tarnishing Israel.

Netanyahu's office issued a statement saying, in a reference to Breaking The Silence, “imagine if foreign diplomats visiting the United States or Britain met with NGOs that call American or British soldiers war criminals”.

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

It added, however, that “our relations with Germany are very important and they will not be affected by this”.

Gabriel told journalists in Jerusalem that he regretted Netanyahu's decision, but also said that he did not think it would badly impact relations between the two countries.

He and Netanyahu, who also serves as Israel's foreign minister, “will find an opportunity to speak with each other on the phone or to meet in an upcoming visit”, he said.

“This does not mean the breaking of diplomatic relations. We need to keep this a little bit in perspective.”

Gabriel earlier told German public television station ZDF that a decision to cancel the meeting would be “extremely regrettable”.

“It is completely normal that we speak with civil society representatives during a visit abroad,” he said.

Gabriel added that it would be “unthinkable” to cancel a meeting with Netanyahu if he met critics of the German government during a visit to Germany.

Delayed summit

Such disputes have arisen in the past between visiting foreign officials and Israel's government.

In February, Israel reprimanded the Belgian ambassador after his country's premier, Charles Michel, met both B'Tselem and Breaking The Silence during a visit to Israel.

However, there was no public rebuke when British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson met with anti-settlement NGO Peace Now during a visit in March.

Israel has occupied the West Bank for 50 years, and Jewish settlement building in the Palestinian territory has drawn intense international criticism.

Israeli settlements are seen as illegal under international law and major stumbling blocks to peace efforts as they are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.

Germany has been among critics of Israeli settlement policy.

A German government spokesman said in February that a summit with Israel planned for May had been delayed, with Israeli media reporting it was because of the Jewish state's controversial new settlements law.

Israel passed a law in February that legalizes thousands of settler homes built on private Palestinian land in the West Bank.

The current government, seen as the most right-wing in Israeli history, has frequently criticised NGOs it accuses of unfairly tarnishing the country's image.

'A red line'

Last year, Israel's parliament adopted a law seen as targeting left-wing groups critical of the government by forcing NGOs that receive most of their funding from foreign states to declare it.

The law was criticized by the European Union, which said it risked “undermining” values that the EU and Israel shared.

Both B'Tselem and Breaking The Silence are among groups that have received European support.

Israeli deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely said Tuesday that her ministry for the past couple years was waging a battle against “anti-Israel organisations that are massively funded by European states”.

“We've decided to draw a red line,” she told army radio.

Gabriel, however, still met President Reuven Rivlin, whose role is mainly ceremonial, on Tuesday afternoon.

After the two men gave speeches, they held a heated meeting lasting more than an hour, a source in the president's office told AFP.

Rivlin repeatedly called Israel's army the “most moral in the world”, the source said.

By Laurent Lozano


Former Israeli soldier attacked on Berlin street

A former Israeli soldier was attacked in the German capital Berlin, police said Saturday, with one or several unknown assailants spraying him with an irritant and throwing him to the ground.

Former Israeli soldier attacked on Berlin street
Israeli soldiers on operation near the Gaza Strip. Photo: dpa | Ilia Yefimovich

The 29-year-old was wearing a top with the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) logo when the attackers started harassing him on Friday about his religion, the police added, calling it “an anti-Semitic attack”.

Officers are seeking the assailants, who fled immediately after the attack, on suspicion of a politically-motivated crime.

Saturday is the second anniversary of an attack by a far-right gunman on a synagogue in the eastern German city of Halle, who killed two in a rampage when he failed to break into the house of worship.

It was one of a string of incidents that led authorities to declare the far right and neo-Nazis Germany’s top security threat.

Also this week, a musician claimed he was turned away from a hotel in eastern city Leipzig for wearing a Star-of-David pendant.

While the allegations prompted a fierce response from a Jewish community unsettled by increasing anti-Semitic crimes, several investigations have been mounted into contradictory accounts of the incident.

In 2019, police recorded 2,032 anti-Semitic crimes, an increase of 13 percent year-on-year.

“The threat is complex and comes from different directions” from jihadists to the far right, the federal government’s commissioner for the fight against anti-Semitism Felix Klein said recently.