Berlin – German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Tuesday it would be “regrettable” if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancels their planned talks in Jerusalem because of his meeting with groups critical of Israel’s actions in the West Bank, but downplayed the spat.
An Israeli official said Netanyahu threatened to scrap Tuesday’s meeting with Gabriel if he goes ahead with plans to meet members of Breaking the Silence, a group that has published testimony, often anonymous, about what former soldiers say is the dark underbelly of service in the occupied West Bank.
Gabriel, whose government remains one of Israel’s staunchest allies in Europe, told reporters that he was not informed officially of a possible cancellation.
“I can’t answer your question because I don’t know if it is true that the meeting is not taking place,” he said during a news conference with the Palestinian prime minister in the West Bank.
“I only know this from the media, and I don’t know the motives,” he said. “If it is the case, someone will explain it to me at some point.”
Earlier, the foreign minister told Germany’s ZDF television that it was “completely normal” to meet with Breaking the Silence and B’tselem, another group critical of Israeli policies.
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.”
He noted that a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin was also planned.
“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.”
An Israeli official said that Netanyahu’s position remained the same. “It’s a choice between Breaking the Silence and the prime minister,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing a diplomatic matter.
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.
The Israeli official said Gabriel was welcome to meet B’tselem. Amit Gilutz, a spokesman for B’tselem, said there were no plans to cancel Tuesday’s meeting.