Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a rare snub to Germany Tuesday, canceling his scheduled meeting with Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel over the visitor’s plan to meet with left-wing human rights groups, his office said.
Despite protestations from the German minister that the prime minister’s cancellation of the meeting would not affect ties, Netanyahu’s reaction was unusually harsh given Israel’s close diplomatic and military relationship to Germany.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policy is not to meet foreign visitors who on diplomatic trips to Israel meet with groups that slander IDF soldiers as war criminals,” his office said in a statement. “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.”
“Imagine if foreign diplomats visiting the United States or Britain met with NGOs that call American or British soldiers war criminals. Leaders of those countries would surely not accept this,” the statement said, adding that “Our relations with Germany are very important and they will not be affected by this.”
Netanyahu tried to call Gabriel after canceling the meeting to explain his decision, but the German minister refused to take his call, several Hebrew media outlets reported on Tuesday afternoon.
On Monday, Netanyahu’s office had said he would not receive the German dignitary as planned if he went ahead with his Tuesday meeting with Breaking the Silence, an Israeli group that publishes anonymous testimonies of former Israeli combat soldiers who report on human rights violations against Palestinians.
The cancellation came hours after Gabriel rejected the ultimatum.
After the cancellation, Gabriel told reporters this would not affect Germany’s relationship with Israel, but said the move was “a surprise” as German visitors had met with left-wing NGOs in the past and that meeting them was a vital part of his trip to the country.
“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and I actually have a very open relations. Therefore I was surprised that the visit was canceled,” he said.
“I regret this a lot, but I want to state openly that we must not become a tool of Israeli domestic policy,” he said, adding that the cancellation was not a “catastrophe.”
“If you come here you have to know that there can be surprises. But my relationship with Israel, and Germany’s relationship to Israel, will not be changed by this in any way.”
However, Gabriel also noted that if Netanyahu came to Germany and met with NGOs critical of the government — they do exist, he said — and Germany cut the visit short, “they [the Israelis] would think we’re crazy.”
“And therefore we have to let the whole thing cool down,” the minister continued. “It’s not nice what happened here… and he [Netanyahu] is also foreign minister, and foreign ministers should speak with each other in any situation, but it’s not like this is going to affect the bilateral relation in an essential way.”
As the announcement that Netanyahu was canceling their talks was issued, Gabriel was meeting with President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem, where he vowed he would not allow the incident to affect relations between Germany and Israel.
“We are committed to the friendship, partnership, and special relationship with Israel, and nothing will change that,” Gabriel said.
Rivlin raised the controversy regarding Breaking the Silence, saying that as a democratic state Israel had no problem with criticism, but it had to be based in reality. “Our army is the most moral army in the world,” the president said, adding that “it is an army made up of all our children. We know how to maintain our army as the most moral in the world, and we will continue to do so.”
Gabriel came to Israel a day ahead of his Tuesday meetings in order to be here when the Jewish state marked Holocaust Remembrance Day on Monday.
“We came here yesterday on a very special day for Israel and Germany,” Gabriel said. “It reminds us of the special relationship and special responsibility, not just today but in the future, to a secure and safe Israel, to support the country of those who survived the Holocaust. As a society, for us it is necessary to remember there should always be a special support for the Jewish community.
“Yesterday I visited Yad Vashem, which is always very special for me. My father was till his last day a committed Nazi, and in my daughter’s family there are victims of the Holocaust. So you will find in my family the deniers of Auschwitz and the victims of Auschwitz,” he said.
Netanyahu won support for his stance from other government ministers.
“We support the prime minister in his decision regarding the visit of the German foreign minister,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party, wrote on Twitter. “Breaking the Silence is not an anti-Netanyahu organization, it is an anti-IDF one.”
Chiming in, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who heads the Shas party, said he gives Netanyahu his “full support.”
“Foreign countries must not intervene in Israel’s internal matters,” he wrote on Twitter.
Several opposition MPs were highly critical of the prime minister, however, with Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog accusing him of harming ties with Germany.
Such disputes have arisen in the past between visiting foreign officials and Israel’s government.
In February, Israel reprimanded the Belgian ambassador after the country’s prime minister, Charles Michel, met with Breaking The Silence and B’Tselem, another left-wing group, during a visit to Israel, despite a direct request from Netanyahu.
However, there was no public rebuke from the government when British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson met with anti-settlement NGO Peace Now during a visit in March.