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Middle East

Steinmeier navigates tricky visit in Israel

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has made his inaugural trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories. It proved a tricky visit after Germany's foreign minister sparked a diplomatic row there last month.

It should have been an easy inaugural visit. Germany's president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and his wife spent four days traveling across Israel and the occupied Palestinian West Bank. And yet most of the time, the focus of the visit was actually not on Steinmeier's itinerary.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Steinmeier met twice in Jerusalem. Both politicians recall the times Steinmeier traveled to Israel as Germany's foreign minister. This time, however, the reunion was marred by a diplomatic dispute.  Netanyahu canceled a meeting with current German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel  two weeks ago when Gabriel signaled his intent to meet with NGOs critical of the Israeli government.

"I don't welcome diplomats from other countries who visit Israel and at the same time meet with organizations that call our soldiers war criminals," said Netanyahu at the time.

Tricky mission

At a meeting on Sunday, both leaders emphasized the importance of their countries' partnership and shook hands. The press conference that had been called at short notice was apparently not on the original itinerary. Netanyahu took the opportunity to praise his country's military. He also took a jab at the human rights organization "Breaking the Silence," which documents statements made by former soldiers and criticizes the occupation of the Palestinian territories. The world was paying close attention to see what the meeting meant for German-Israeli relations.

Many media outlets said that under these circumstances, the trip was a "tricky mission for the German president." Steinmeier himself openly said in his speech at the Hebrew University that he had been advised to postpone or cancel the trip. But stressed that was out of the question for him, saying there should never be "speechlessness between Israel and Germany."

Bundespräsident Steinmeier in Israel (picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka)

Steinmeier visited the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial with his wife, Elke Büdenbender

'Inconceivable guilt'

At Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, Steinmeier wrote in the guest book: "We Germans have burdened ourselves with inconceivable guilt." He went on to say that Germany firmly stood by Israel, working for a "common future." At the moment, the differences of opinion between the two countries' respective governments play an important role, at least diplomatically. Steinmeier's host, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, first shared a beer with his guests at the trendy Mahane Yehuda Market before they turned to serious matters. At the official reception, Rivlin asserted that "Israel is a very lively democracy," and as a result some voices in the country were "hard to digest and outrageous." Steinmeier, on the other hand, stressed the resilience of the German-Israeli relationship and said it could withstand the "turmoil" it had experienced in recent weeks.

It was a busy itinerary: In Israel, Steinmeier and his wife met Holocaust survivors and young German volunteers working in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Steinmeier laid down wreaths on the graves of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Instead of sitting down with controversial human rights groups, he met Israeli writers like David Grossman and Amos Oz, who presented a prize last year to the "Breaking the Silence" organization.

Israel Bundespräsident Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Jerusalem (Getty Images/AFP/G. Tibbon)

Steinmeier and Rivlin stopped by Jerusalem's trendy Machane Yehuda Market

Clear words at the university

"Speech bans do not help anyone understand and they do not create understanding," said Steinmeier during his remarks in front of an invited audience at Jerusaleum's Hebrew University. He described the history and challenges of democracy - in Germany and in Israel - and emphasized that it is important to speak with "as many different groups as possible" in Israel, "to get to know as many different perspectives as possible." He added that, "anyone who raises their voice and deals out criticism is not a traitor of the people, but actually a steward of the people."

He did not name names, but everyone in the hall knew the person he was addressing. Reactions among the students were mixed. "It is an absolute must to meet different civil society actors," said one young man.

"Israelis often feel that everyone thinks they can comment on internal things in Israel," said Erez Rochman, a student. "Many automatically go into defense mode." But, Rochmann added, if someone like Steinmeier tells you that democracy is not easy, even in Germany, then you can talk about it - even with organizations that are not mainstream.

Ayelet, an international relations student, was of a different opinion. "The president made a good decision not to meet these leftist organizations," she argued. "They delegitimize Israel."

In the Israeli media, his speech was interpreted as a clear message to Prime Minister Netanyahu. However, all the talk about the current diplomatic malaise between the two nations distracted from main issue - the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. At the end of his visit, Steinmeier placed a wreath at the tomb of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. After that, Steinmeier met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. There, he urged a rapid implementation of the two-state solution. "In the international community, there were many attempts and much time has passed, and those who know the region know that it has become truly urgent to implement proposals for a two-state solution," he said.

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