Merkel Spokesman Sides With German Foreign Minister in Spat With Netanyahu

The German chancellor says it is 'regrettable' the meeting between Sigmar Gabriel and the Israeli prime minister didn't happen

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at a Cabinet Meeting in Berlin on April 26, 2017.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman backed the country's foreign minister on Wednesday in a spat over his meeting with a rights group in Israel, saying it must be possible to meet critical organizations in a democracy.

Prime Minister Netanyahu abruptly canceled planned talks Tuesday with visiting Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel over his meeting with Breaking the Silence, a group critical of Israeli military actions in the West Bank.

Netanyahu said he won't see visiting diplomats who meet groups "that slander [Israeli] soldiers and seek to put our soldiers on trial as war criminals."

Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert said Wednesday the chancellor considers it "regrettable" the meeting didn't happen. He added: "In a democracy it should be possible for foreign visitors to speak without problems to critical representatives of civil society."

Netanyahu asked to speak with Gabriel on Tuesday afternoon, but the German foreign minister refused to take his call.

Sources in the prime minister's bureau said that Netanyahu wanted to speak with Gabriel to personally explain why he had reservations regarding the latter's meeting with Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem and why he decided not to meet with him, Haaretz reported Tuesday.