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Gabriel defends 'anti-Israel NGO' meetings

May 5, 2017

Germany's foreign minister has defended a decision to meet with groups critical of the Israeli government. The remarks could make an upcoming trip to Israel awkward for the German president.

Außenminister Gabriel in Israel
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka

Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told the German mass-market daily "Bild" on Friday he does not regret a controversial meeting with human rights groups in Israel and, given the chance, would do it again.

"Democrats should also be able to meet with organizations that are critical of the government," Gabriel, who belongs to Germany's Social Democratic Party, said. "There should be no ultimatums among Democrats."

Read: Netanyahu accuses German Foreign Minister Gabriel of 'tactlessness'

During his visit to Israel last week, Gabriel sat down with representatives from Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem, both organizations that have been deeply critical of settlements and the Israeli military's treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

Snubbed by Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had warned Gabriel against meeting with what he described as "radical fringe groups," subsequently canceled scheduled talks, calling the minister's behavior "tactless."

Read more: Opinion: Bibi's theatrics

B'Tselem is a prominent NGO that records human rights abuses and Jewish settlement building in Palestinian territories. Breaking the Silence documents testimony from ex-Israeli soldiers about abuses committed against Palestinians.

Gabriel told "Bild" that Netanyahu wanted to force him to "cancel a meeting with respectable Israeli citizens only because they are critical of his policies relating to Palestinians."  He added that these policies were also "highly controversial in Israel, so it was obvious to me that I also had to hear from critics." 

Upcoming Steinmeier visit

Gabriel's repeated defense of his actions may be problematic for German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is due to arrive in Israel on Saturday. Referring to that visit, Gabriel said Steinmeier's role was different to his own, and expressed full confidence the president will be able to "find the right words to calm the situation."

Relations between Germany and Israel have been strained recently as Netanyahu's government moves forward with a crackdown on civil society groups and settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Germany has criticized Israel for hindering a two-state solution.

nm/rt (AFP, dpa)