WASHINGTON - U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Wednesday during his daily press briefing that human rights groups such as Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem are an important part of "any functioning civil society."
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Toner made the comment in reply to a question about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's decision earlier this week to cancel his meeting with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel because the latter met with representatives of the two organizations.
Netanyahu issued an ultimatum to Gabriel, saying that he will not meet with the German foreign minister if he does not cancel his meetings with the left-wing groups. After Gabriel refused, Netanyahu made good on his promise. His office issued a statement saying that "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policy is not to meet with diplomats who visit Israel and meet with organizations that slander IDF soldiers and seek to prosecute them as war criminals."
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"I don’t think it’s necessarily for us to speak to who the prime minister of Israel decides to meet with," Toner said. "He’s free to meet with whomever he wishes. More broadly about this group, I think we would regard it as important that any functioning civil society has these types of groups and the diverse viewpoints. That’s a vital part of any functioning democracy. But I’m not going to speak to his decision."
Toner also said during the briefing that Michael Ratney, the senior diplomat in charge of the Israel-Palestine file at the State Department, has recently met with Palestinian officials as part of preparations for President Donald Trump's meeting with Palestinian President Abbas next week in Washington. Toner said the meetings took place in the White House and Ratney represented the State Department.
In reply to a question about Israeli settlement building, Toner stated, as he has done before, that "President Trump was very clear. He’s both publicly and privately expressed his concerns regarding settlements. He said while the existence of settlements is not in itself an impediment of peace, it’s that further unrestrained settlement activity doesn’t help advance peace."
He added that "we’ve had good preliminary talks with both the Israelis and, obviously, the Palestinians as well, more recently, about steps that can be taken, concrete steps to create a climate for a peace process or peace negotiations to begin again. I’m not going to get ahead of those, but they’re aware of our concerns that increased settlement activity could be an impediment."