JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly canceled talks Tuesday with the German foreign minister over the visiting diplomat’s plans to sit down with an Israeli rights group, sparking a rare diplomatic feud with one of Israel’s closest and most important allies.
The last-minute cancellation cast a cloud over a visit that had been meant to draw attention to years of friendship between the two countries and coincided with Israel’s annual Holocaust memorial day.
Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister wouldn’t meet with foreign dignitaries who meet “groups that slander IDF soldiers as war criminals,” referring to Breaking the Silence, a whistleblower group critical of Israeli military actions in the West Bank.
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The German minister, Sigmar Gabriel, was set to meet with members of the organization during his visit to Israel and said Netanyahu’s cancellation was “relatively surprising” since such meetings were “rather standard” for foreign diplomats.
Gabriel said he didn’t want to be turned into “a plaything for Israeli domestic politics,” using unusually frank language in light of the sensitive nature of Israel-Germany ties.
Israel and Germany have had a long, close and complicated relationship. Israel was established in 1948 in the wake of the Holocaust, when Nazi Germany killed 6 million Jews. The countries only established diplomatic relations in 1965.
Today, Germany is a key Israeli trade partner and ally in Europe, and assumes responsibility for the crimes committed during the Holocaust. Both Gabriel and former president Joachim Gauck took part in Holocaust memorial events in Israel on Monday. When he met with Rivlin, Gabriel called the Holocaust “the most criminal action we did in the history of humankind.”
But tensions occasionally flare up over Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, as well as settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem. Germany, along with most of the international community, considers Israeli settlements illegal.
Speaking after Netanyahu canceled their meeting, Gabriel said German officials would be called “crazy” if the German government acted in such a way during a Netanyahu visit to Germany.
Gabriel has been Germany’s foreign minister since January and its vice chancellor since 2013. This is his first visit to Israel in the new job.
Earlier, Gabriel had said it would be “regrettable” if Netanyahu canceled their planned talks in Jerusalem.
“You can’t get a proper and comprehensive picture in any country on Earth if you only meet in government offices,” added Gabriel. “I can’t imagine that we would not do such things in the future just to get government appointments.”
Netanyahu’s office said that foreign dignitaries are welcome to meet with civil society representatives, but that the prime minister “will not meet with those who lend legitimacy to organizations that call for the criminalization of Israeli soldiers.”
Israeli opposition lawmaker Tzipi Livni called Netanyahu’s cancellation of the meeting a “strategic mistake” that stems from “fear and weakness.”
“It places Israel and its government on the same level of importance as a small, marginal organization and makes a martyr of them in the eyes of the world,” said Livni, a former foreign minister.
Breaking the Silence is a group of former Israeli combat soldiers opposed to Israel’s nearly 50-year occupation of the West Bank. The group publishes testimony, often anonymous, about what former soldiers say is the dark underbelly of service in the Palestinian territories.
Israeli leaders oppose the group’s work, citing the anonymity of the claims and its outreach efforts to foreign audiences. They say there are better, more legitimate ways to criticize the army.
ILAN BEN ZION