Amid Tensions With Netanyahu, German President Lauds Israeli Democracy, but Says Critics Aren't 'Traitors'

Steinmeier says he made trip 'not because I find your prime minister’s decision to cancel his meeting with Germany’s foreign minister correct,' but to prevent further deterioration in relations

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
AP

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier mixed criticism with praise on Sunday in discussing the recent crisis in German-Israeli relations, caused by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to meet with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel because the latter refused to cancel his meeting with Breaking the Silence.

Speaking at Hebrew University, Steinmeier began by lauding the late President Shimon Peres. The German government, he announced, has established a new prize named after Peres, for “young Israelis and Germans who work on problems that are equally relevant to our two countries.”

Next, he praised Israel’s democracy, saying it has for decades been “surrounded by the permanent threat of terrorism. In recent years, Islamist terrorism has struck us in Germany, France and Belgium – at the heart of Europe. The threat level has increased – and throws up difficult questions, that Israel has long known: What is the right balance between freedom and security? How much surveillance do we need while at the same time preserving privacy?” There are no clear-cut answers, Steinmeier said, but added, “We look to Israel and establish that, despite the threats of war and terrorism, Israeli democracy has remained vibrant and self-confident.”

Nevertheless, he stressed, plurality of opinion is essential to democracy.

“So I do believe that anyone who uses his voice, who expresses criticism, but at the same time respects the voice of others, is not a ‘traitor of the people,’ but is in fact a preserver of the people,” he said. “For that reason, I believe that civil-society organizations which are part of the social debate deserve our respect as democrats, even when they take a critical view of a government.”

Then Steinmeier criticized Netanyahu’s decision not to meet with Gabriel, saying, “You will all be aware that the German and Israeli governments have taken very different views in recent days on the question of who is a legitimate interlocutor. I have thought long and hard about what this means for my visit to Israel today. To be frank, quite a lot of people told me this was the wrong time for a trip to Israel. Some thought it would be more appropriate to cancel, or at least postpone the trip.

"But I decided otherwise, 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. Settling irritations, clearing up misunderstandings, building new trust – all that can only be done through dialogue.”