Israel has come under increasing criticism for seeking to silence groups that are critical of the 50-year military occupation of the West Bank. The Israeli Parliament passed a law in March barring entry to Israel for foreigners supporting a boycott of the country.
IAN FISHER, The New York Times, APRIL 25, 2017
Sigmar Gabriel, the German foreign minister, in Jerusalem on Tuesday. Mr. Gabriel’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was canceled because Mr. Gabriel met with members of Breaking the Silence, a group opposed to the occupation of Palestinian territories. (Abir Sultan/European Pressphoto Agency)
JERUSALEM — It was hardly the first time a top-level meeting had been canceled over hard feelings. But when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel called off a session with the German foreign minister here on Tuesday, it seemed a particularly sharp reflection of the tension within Israel, and with its allies, these days.
Israeli and German officials said the cancellation of the top-level meeting planned for later in the day came after the German minister of foreign affairs, Sigmar Gabriel, met with the group Breaking the Silence, which opposes the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Mr. Netanyahu has accused the group of “slandering” Israeli soldiers.
The tension began when the Israeli news media addressed the possibility that Mr. Gabriel would visit with the group and reported that Israeli officials — and probably Mr. Netanyahu himself — were threatening that the visit would be a deal-breaker for the planned top-level meeting ahead.
Perhaps predictably, Mr. Gabriel, who is also Germany’s vice chancellor, did not take it well.
“It simply can’t be,” Mr. Gabriel told reporters in Israel. “Imagine if we would invite Mr. Netanyahu to Germany and he wants to meet with NGOs that are critical of the government and we say, ‘If you do that we’ll break off the visit.’ People would tell us we’re crazy.”
He refused to speculate on whether the cancellation was a tit-for-tat move after the German leadership postponed a governmental exchange with Israel, originally planned for May, citing scheduling conflicts. “The whole situation has to cool down,” Mr. Gabriel said.
After the meeting of the two leaders was called off, an Israeli official in Mr. Netanyahu’s office, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said that Mr. Gabriel refused to take a phone call from the Israeli prime minister. German officials could not immediately be reached to comment.
“Diplomats are welcome to meet with representatives of civil society,” Mr. Netanyahu’s office said, “but Prime Minister Netanyahu will not meet with those who lend legitimacy to organizations that call for the criminalization of Israeli soldiers.”
Breaking the Silence, which includes Israeli combat veterans, declined to comment.
Germany is one of Israel’s strongest allies in Europe, but it has often been critical of Israeli policies. The tension increased recently after Germany criticized an Israeli law that would retroactively legalize thousands of homes in a settlement built on private Palestinian land.
Mr. Gabriel’s visit to Israel came the same week as Holocaust Remembrance Day. He visited Yad Vashem, the museum and memorial to the six million Jews killed by the Nazi regime in World War II.