Aiming at Netanyahu, German president warns against blackballing groups

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Sunday delivered a subtle but harsh rebuke to Prime Minister Netanyahu over the latter’s refusal to hold talks with foreign dignitaries who meet with the controversial Breaking the Silence group.

Speaking to students and others at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Steinmeier defended his foreign minister’s decision to meet with the group critical of Israel’s West Bank activities despite losing out on a sit-down with Netanyahu.

“Let us talk to each other about the challenges to democracy honestly and without taboos. My experience from many years working in all fields of politics – not only foreign policy – is this: taboos do not help you to understand, and they do not create understanding,” he said. “Because we Germans know and admire the diversity of democracy in Israel, we want to discuss our difficult questions with as many different groups in your country as possible, so as to get to know as many different viewpoints as possible – as we have done over decades in good faith.”

Earlier in the day Steinmeier met with Netanyahu and during a joint press conference spoke of “weathering” the diplomatic storm caused by a run-in between the Israeli prime minister and the German foreign minister.

Last month, Netanyahu cancelled on short notice a meeting with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel over the latter’s refusal to abort a planned meeting with Breaking the Silence. Without mentioning the left-wing organization, which documents alleged human rights violations by Israeli soldiers, Steinmeier said leaders of democratic societies want to prove wrong the worlds’ autocrats, totalitarians and strongmen.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, together with visiting German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at a joint press conference in Jerusalem May 7, 2017. (AFP/POOL/RONEN ZVULUN)

“Why do I believe that? Because democracy is able to take a critical look at itself, and to correct itself. Autocrats are not,” Steinmeier said, speaking in German. “Democracy is the only form of government which integrates the largest possible spectrum of society, which scrutinizes those in power, which recognizes wrong turns as wrong turns, and makes it possible to embark on new paths.”

Referring to but not naming the members of Breaking the Silence — which Netanyahu denounced as a group trying to get Israeli soldiers tried for war crimes — Steinmeier said that anyone who expresses criticism is not a traitor, but rather a “preserver” of the nation.

“For that reason, I believe that civil-society organizations that are part of the social debate deserve our respect as democrats, even when they take a critical view of a government – in Germany, but also here in Israel,” he said.

The German president said that he thought long and hard about the scandal surrounding Netanyahu’s snub of Gabriel, adding that he was urged to postpone or even cancel his trip to Israel as a result.

There had been concerns in Jerusalem that Steinmeier might seek to meet with Breaking the Silence as well during his visit, ratcheting up the diplomatic tiff, but the president said it was more important to preserve bilateral ties, despite the disagreement.

“Perhaps [canceling] might even have been the easier solution for me. But I decided otherwise,” he told the students. “Not because I find your prime minister’s decision to cancel his meeting with Germany’s foreign minister correct. But because I believe that it would not be in keeping with my responsibilities if I were to let relations between our two countries move deeper into a cul-de-sac, at the end of which all sides will have lost very much.”

Israel and Germany are “bound by a terrible past,” said Steinmeier, who visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial earlier in the day. “Relations between Germany and Israel will always be special. This is something we must not forget, particularly when things are difficult and a harsher wind is blowing.”

He added, in what was perhaps an allusion to Breaking the Silence, “Whatever happens, there must never be silence between Germany and Israel!”

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel arrives for a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 25, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Steinmeier, who became president in March, said it would have been cowardly of him not to come to Israel due to the spat over Breaking the Silence. “Talking directly with each other might sometimes be harder than not talking at all,” he said. “Settling irritations, clearing up misunderstandings, building new trust – all that can only be done through dialogue. Therefore: seeking conversation is better than refusing it.”

He added that, as German president, it was not his place to advise Israel on how to “handle” its democracy. “I can only say that I admire the Israeli democracy for how it has defied external threats for decades by taking pride in its diversity. And that is why I am confident that it will preserve this proud diversity internally too.”

In a lengthy speech about Israeli-German relations and the state of democracy in both countries, Steinmeier also reiterated Berlin’s opposition to “illegal settlement activities” and endorsed the two-state solution as the only way that could secure Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

“It is precisely because we also have an eye on democracy that we Germans advocate a two-state solution,” he said. “Thinking a few years ahead, then only a two-state solution will give Israel a future as both a Jewish and a democratic state. And we Germans want to support that.”

He also announced the creation of a prize named after Israel’s late ninth president, Shimon Peres. “With the Shimon Peres memorial prize, we will honor young Israelis and Germans who work on problems that are equally relevant to our two countries – be it working for peace, or questions of demographic change, climate change or digitization.”

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