Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not hold talks with visiting German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel because of Gabriel's intention to meet with an Israeli NGO critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians, Netanyahu's spokesman said yesterday.
Canceling the meeting between Netanyahu and Gabriel was a rare step, but in line with the current right-wing Israeli government's stance against groups it accuses of having political agendas.
German Foreign Minister Gabriel said earlier it would be "regrettable" if the Israeli prime minister cancels their planned talks in Jerusalem because of his meeting with groups critical of Israel's actions in the West Bank.
Netanyahu had reportedly told Gabriel that he had to pick between either meeting him or the Israeli human rights groups B'Tselem and Breaking the Silence, Israel's Channel Two news said on Monday night.
However, Gabriel refused to bend to the ultimatum on Tuesday and had hoped that he would not have to choose. He defended meeting the groups, saying it was "completely normal" for any visiting foreign official who wanted to learn more about that country's society.
Gabriel, who is also Germany's vice chancellor, said it would be "unthinkable" to cancel meetings with Netanyahu if the Israeli leader traveled to Germany and met government critics there.
"It would be regrettable if there were a cancellation," he told ZDF "But it's not as though it would be a catastrophe for me. I have been in this country so often and have a lot of friends, and it wouldn't change my relationship with Israel."
Breaking the Silence is a group of former Israeli combat soldiers opposed to Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank, which will soon complete its 50th year. Israeli leaders oppose the group's work, citing the anonymity of the claims and its outreach efforts to foreign audiences. B'Tselem has worked on a range of issues and has strongly opposed Israeli settlement building.
Gabriel has been in Israel since Monday, which was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in his first trip as foreign minister and attended a wreath-laying ceremony at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial along with Netanyahu and others.
In February, Germany cancelled a planned May meeting with the Israeli government, citing scheduling conflicts due to the upcoming German elections, though German Chancellor Angela Merkel's dissatisfaction with the Israeli settlement legalization law was another reason, Haaretz reported, citing anonymous German and Israeli sources.
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 due to 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.