BERLIN – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with America's new and controversial ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, in Berlin on Monday after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Netanyahu briefly met Grenell before flying to Paris, where he will sit down with French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday. "The meeting was at their initiative," Netanyahu told Israeli reporters. It is considered unusual for a prime minister to meet with an ambassador in a third country.
"We thought it would be a courtesy meeting at the airport. He's a big fan of Israel. But now, because we’re running late, it will be nothing more than a handshake," Netanyahu added.
Germany has asked the U.S. government to clarify remarks made by Grenell, who told right-wing website Breitbart News he wants to empower "other conservatives" in Europe.
The comments from Grenell, a former U.S. spokesman at the United Nations and outspoken defender of U.S. President Donald Trump, drew criticism from politicians across the German political spectrum, who cautioned him against meddling in domestic politics.
The Foreign Ministry in Berlin, led by Social Democrat Heiko Maas, said it would address the issue on Wednesday when Grenell is due to make his inaugural visit to the ministry.
Tensions have already been growing between Germany and the United States over trade, military spending and Trump's decision to pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
In the interview with Breitbart News, Grenell attributed the groundswell of conservatives across Europe to the "failed policies of the left", adding: "I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders."
He described himself as a big fan of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the head of the conservative People's Party who was an outspoken critic of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policies and shares power with the far-right Freedom Party in Vienna.
"We have asked the U.S. side for clarification, and whether (the remarks) were made as reported," a foreign ministry spokesman told a regular government news conference.
Rolf Muetzenich, deputy leader of the Social Democrats in parliament, said the issue should be raised quickly with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
"Clearly the U.S. ambassador sees himself as an extension of a right-wing conservative world movement," he said. Muetzenich added thatGrenell's actions violated the 1961 Vienna Convention, under which diplomats do not interfere in the domestic affairs of a country.
Grenell, who like Trump is an avid Twitter user, defended himself. "I stand by my comments that we are experiencing an awakening from the silent majority - those who reject the elites & their bubble. Led by Trump."
However, Omid Nouripour, foreign policy spokesman for the Greens party, said the U.S. ambassador should represent his entire country, not just right-wing views espoused on the Fox News TV channel and Breitbart.
Juergen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman for Merkel's conservatives, struck a more cautious note, saying it was not his place to tell Grenell how to do his job.
But he expressed hope that the ambassador would devote his "full energy" to promoting dialogue between Berlin and Washington on the serious issues they face, from trade to Middle East policy.
Grenell raised eyebrows last month when, hours after arriving in Berlin, he called on German firms to wind down their operations in Iran immediately given the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Iran deal.
Not all German politicians have been hostile. Jens Spahn, perhaps the most prominent critic of Merkel within her Christian Democratic Union party, has been photographed repeatedly with the new ambassador since he arrived in Berlin.
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