Berlin: German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Tuesday it would be "regrettable" if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancels their planned talks in Jerusalem because of his meeting with groups critical of Israel's actions in the West Bank, but downplayed the spat.
Netanyahu has threatened to scrap Tuesday's meeting with Gabriel over his plan to meet members of Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem. Gabriel told Germany's ZDF television he heard about that from Israeli media, but insisted that the meeting with the groups was "completely normal."
Gabriel, who is also Germany's vice chancellor, said it would be "unthinkable" to cancel meetings with Netanyahu if the Israeli leader traveled to Germany and met government critics there.
"It would be regrettable if there were a cancellation," he said. "But it's not as though it would be a catastrophe for me. I have been in this country so often and have a lot of friends, and it wouldn't change my relationship with Israel."
He noted that a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin was also planned. "You can't get a proper and comprehensive picture in any country on Earth if you only meet in government offices," added Gabriel. "I can't imagine that we would not do such things in the future just to get government appointments."
An Israeli official said that Netanyahu's position remained the same. "It's a choice between Breaking the Silence and the prime minister," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing a diplomatic matter.
Breaking the Silence is a group of former Israeli combat soldiers opposed to Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank, which will soon complete its 50th year.
The group provides testimonies, often anonymous, describing what the former soldiers say is the dark underbelly of serving in the West Bank. Israeli leaders oppose the group's work, citing the anonymity of the claims and its outreach efforts to foreign audiences.
The Israeli official said Gabriel was welcome to meet B'tselem, another Israeli rights group critical of government policies toward the Palestinians. Amit Gilutz, a spokesman for B'tselem, said there were no plans to cancel Tuesday's meeting.