Germany's Merkel Defends Her Foreign Minister in Wake of Netanyahu's Snub

German chancellor says the dispute 'changes nothing' with regard to Germany's support for Israel

Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor and Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader, speaks during a North Rhine-Westphalia state election campaign event in Beverungen, Germany, on April 27, 201
Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday defended her Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, whose meeting with a group critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel talks.

Netanyahu said in an interview with a German newspaper he had tried to telephone Gabriel to clear the air after canceling the talks but the visiting German foreign minister would not take his call.

Asked if Gabriel had her backing, Merkel told the RND newspaper group: "Yes, he has that. We were in close contact during his visit to Israel."

Netanyahu canceled talks with Gabriel on Tuesday after the minister met members of "Breaking the Silence," an Israeli organization often criticized by the Israeli government over its collection of testimonies from Israeli veterans about the army's treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank.

Merkel said she often meets civil society groups during her foreign travels, adding the dispute "changes nothing in our conviction that support for the state of Israel is part of our raison d'etat."

Netanyahu told Germany's most widely distributed daily newspaper, Bild, that he tried to call the German foreign minister to explain his position and clear the air, but the latter refused to take the call. 

He said that the German foreign minister's meeting with the left-wing groups was "insensitive" but stressed the ties between Germany and Israel will continue to be strong and based on the two nations' shared values.

"I hope that the next time Gabriel visits Israel, he meets with me instead of a radical fringe group undermining Israeli security," Netanyahu said.

Gabriel, in turn, said on Friday in Valletta that it "it seems Mr. Netanyahu is under big pressure over what he has done. This is why he is appearing in German newspapers."

German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer said Israeli officials had wanted Gabriel to meet representatives of West Bank settlers as a condition for the phone conversation, something the German side could not accept.

"Foreign diplomats are welcome to meet with civil society activists and members of the opposition and anyone else they'd like," Netanyahu told Bild. "They can even meet with Breaking the Silence. But my red line is that I will not meet diplomats who come to Israel and lend legitimacy to fringe radical groups that falsely accuse our soldiers of war crimes and undermine Israeli security."