Germany’s Merkel Sides With Gabriel in Dispute With PM Netanyahu

BERLIN (Reuters) -
Germany's Merkel Sides With Gabriel in Dispute With PM Netanyahu
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. (Reuters/Hannibal Hanschke)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday defended her Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, whose meeting with a left-wing group prompted Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to cancel talks.

Netanyahu said in an interview with a German newspaper that he had tried to telephone Gabriel to clear the air after canceling the talks but the visiting German foreign minister would not take his call.

Asked if Gabriel had her backing, Merkel told the RND newspaper group: “Yes, he has that. We were in close contact during his visit to Israel.”

Netanyahu canceled talks with Gabriel on Tuesday after the minister met members of “Breaking the Silence,” an Israeli organization often criticized by the Israeli government over its collection of testimonies from Israeli veterans about the army’s treatment of Palestinians.

Merkel said she often meets civil society groups during her foreign travels, adding that the dispute “changes nothing in our conviction that support for the state of Israel is part of our raison d’etat.”

The dispute threatens to widen a rift between Israel and Germany over Jewish building in Yehudah and Shomron.

Netanyahu, who also serves as foreign minister, said he had tried to patch things up with Gabriel, telling German mass-selling daily Bild on Friday: “I wanted to telephone Foreign Minister Gabriel to explain my position and to clear things up, but he would not take the call.”

“I hope Gabriel meets me on his next trip to Israel rather than a radical fringe group that undermines Israel’s security,” he said.

“It seems Mr. Netanyahu is under big pressure over what he has done,” Gabriel said on Friday in Valletta. “This is why he is appearing in German newspapers.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer said Israeli officials had wanted Gabriel to meet representatives of Jewish communities in Yehudah and Shomron as a condition for the phone conversation, something the German side could not accept.

“I do not welcome diplomats from other countries who visit Israel and meet organizations that call our soldiers war criminals. That is the reason why the meeting did not take place,” Netanyahu told Bild.

He added that relations between Israel and Germany were “extraordinarily strong” and that Israelis were thankful for Germany’s help in maintaining Israel’s security.

Germany regards itself as one of Israel’s closest allies and the cooperation and trade links are extensive. However, the legacy of the Nazi-era Holocaust, in which six million Jews were killed during World War II, means relations are highly charged.