In his visit to Israel this week, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel had hoped to meet both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a range of civil society groups. But in a sign of growing bilateral tensions over settlements in Palestine, Gabriel was forced to choose — and Netanyahu didn’t make the cut.
In his first trip to Israel since assuming his position as foreign minister earlier this year, Gabriel hoped to push for a two-state solution while maintaining the historically robust Germany-Israel relationship. He also planned to meet with local several nonprofits, including Breaking the Silence, a group founded by Israeli veterans that highlights Israeli military abuses against Palestinian civilians.
But on Monday, Netanyahu threatened to break off the meeting with Gabriel if he followed through with the planned session with Breaking the Silence.
Gabriel refused to comply. Instead, he told German broadcaster ZDF, “You never get the full picture of any state in the world if you just meet with figures in government ministries.”
Netanyahu, clearly incensed, canceled the meeting. “Imagine if foreign diplomats visiting the United States or Britain met with NGOs that call American or British soldiers war criminals,”remarked a spokesperson. “Leaders of those countries would surely not accept this.” Perhaps in an attempt to smooth over relations, Netanyahu tried to get Gabriel on the phone on Tuesday, according to Israeli news outlet Haaretz, but Gabriel declined.
The spat comes amid rising tensions over Israel’s settlements policies in Palestine. In early February, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, passed a law that retroactively legalized thousands of settlements on land in the occupied territories, providing compensation for the Palestinians whose land was being used but without providing them a means to reclaim it. Advocates for a two-state solution decried the law as a serious blow to any peaceful resolution to the decades-long conflict.
The current German administration supports a two-state solution. In the wake of the law’s passage, a German foreign ministry spokesperson remarked, “Our trust in the Israeli government’s commitment to the two-state solution has been fundamentally shaken.”
Diplomatic fallout ensued. In February, German Chancellor Angela Merkel cancelled a conference with Netanyahu and other officials. Government sources said the cancellation was related to the upcoming German elections in September, but Haaretz reported that the real reason was anger over the settlements bill.
Netanyahu has also recently sought to reduce the influence of what he considers leftwing organizations, especially those that criticize the Israeli military. Founded by veterans of the Israeli Defense Forces, Breaking the Silence has gathered and shared the testimonies of more than 1,000 soldiers who have served in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, making it a particular target. In February, Netanyahu asked British Prime Minister Theresa May to cease its indirect funding, via UK-based Christian groups, of Breaking the Silence.
The settlements aren’t the only issue between Israel and Germany. Netanyahu faces conflict of interest allegations over a big contract with a German shipyard to build new submarines for the Israeli navy; the Israeli Defence Forces has said it doesn’t want or need the expensive new subs.
Despite the rift, Israel aims to maintain strong bilateral ties. “Our relations with Germany are very important and they will not be affected by this,” read a statement issued by Netanyahu’s office.
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