German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier sought to move past a diplomatic dispute between his country and Israel while visiting on Sunday, saying ties were strong enough to endure “turbulence”. Steinmeier’s visit, his first to Israel since becoming president in March and first to any country in that capacity outside Europe, comes after a recent row between Germany’s foreign minister and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The foundations (of the Israeli-German) relationship are so broad that I think they can endure some turbulence like that taking place in the last 14 days,” Steinmeier said at the residence of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Netanyahu had cancelled an April 25 meeting with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel after the visiting diplomat declined to call off meetings with rights groups critical of Israel’s government.
“The unique relationship of our two states is too important to be measured solely by the question of who a legitimate interlocutor should be,” Steinmeier said. Steinmeier, who is not scheduled to meet any potentially controversial group during his visit, said trust and understanding between Israel and Germany should result in no limitations.
“I believe that we can and should be able to lead an open and honest dialogue with one another, and to my mind, need no new rules,” he said. “We should not impose any restrictions, we should have the trust that friends like we are will be able to interpret what they hear in the right way,” he said. Host Rivlin addressed the controversy, saying that “Israel is a vibrant democracy with different voices, varied and critical, even if at times these voices are hard to accept and infuriating.”
Gabriel had met with members of Breaking the Silence, which seeks to document alleged Israeli military abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories, and of B’Tselem, which works on a number of human rights issues and strongly opposes Israeli settlement building. Netanyahu’s rightwing government says the groups unfairly tarnish Israel and strengthen the arguments of its enemies.
The German president was to meet Netanyahu later today. On Tuesday, Steinmeier will call on Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas at his Ramallah headquarters in the occupied West Bank. Such disputes have arisen in the past between visiting foreign officials and Israel’s government. In February, Israel reprimanded the Belgian ambassador after his country’s premier, Charles Michel, met members of both B’Tselem and Breaking The Silence during a visit to the Jewish state.
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.