Published: Thu, April 27, 2017
Global | By Maureen Mccoy

Merkel spokesman backs German FM in spat over Israel visit

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.

Binyamin Netanyahu called off the meeting with his German counterpart after Gabriel made a decision to go ahead with talks with Israeli rights groups Breaking The Silence and B'Tselem, an anonymous Israeli official said. Gabriel told Germany's ZDF television he heard about that from Israeli media.

Merkel said Wednesday it was "regrettable" that Netanyahu denied her foreign minister a meeting, after the diplomat held talks with non-governmental organisations critical of Israel's government and illegal military occupation of Palestinian land.

Gabriel did go on to meet the Israeli president, however, with both men saying they were committed to relations between their two countries.

"In no country in the world can you get a reasonable and comprehensive impression if you only meet with government representatives".

Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein branded Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem "anti-Israeli propaganda organizations".

The other group, Breaking the Silence, collects the testimonies of soldiers who served in the Israeli-controlled West Bank.

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While Netanyahu's move appears to be extreme and quite dumb, it actually fits coherently with his government's orchestrated campaign against Israeli human rights organizations over the last two years.

But he also stressed that he wanted "to say openly that I think we should not become the pawn of Israel's domestic politics". "The ultimatum to the German foreign minister is a serious blow to Israel's ties to Europe's largest economy and a true friend of Israel".

Netanyahu canceled the scheduled meeting with Sigmar Gabriel, as the latter announced that he would meet with rights groups that criticize Israel's practices against the Palestinians.

Sigmar Gabriel had been due to meet Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

In February, Israel reprimanded Belgium's ambassador after the country's prime minister met with Breaking the Silence on a trip to Israel, a day after Netanyahu had urged him to stop funding the group.

Netanyahu, who also serves as foreign minister, said this would be his position in receiving visitors in the future. "We know how to maintain our army as the most moral in the world and we will continue to do so", Rivlin contended.

In October 2016, B'Tselem infuriated Netanyahu and other right-wing politicians in Israel by taking the podium at the United Nations to speak against the regime's illegal settlement activities in Palestinian lands, vowing to keep up its anti-occupation campaign despite the threats it receives from Tel Aviv.

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