BERLIN (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he tried to telephone Germany’s foreign minister to clear the air after cancelling talks during Sigmar Gabriel’s visit to Israel but the German minister would not take the call.
Netanyahu cancelled his planned talks with Gabriel on Tuesday after the minister met groups critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
The dispute threatens to widen a rift between Israel and Germany over the Palestinian issue. Berlin has been increasingly critical of the settlement policies of Netanyahu’s right-wing government in occupied territory Palestinians seek for a state.
Netanyahu, who is also Israel’s foreign minister, said he had tried to patch things up with Gabriel.
“I wanted to telephone Foreign Minister Gabriel to explain my position and to clear things up, but he would not take the call,” Netanyahu told German mass-selling daily Bild.
“I hope Gabriel meets me on his next trip to Israel rather than a radical fringe group that undermines Israel’s security.”
On Monday an Israeli official had said Netanyahu would not see Gabriel if he went ahead and met the Israeli group “Breaking the Silence”.
The organisation, a frequent target of criticism by the Israeli government, collects testimony from Israeli veterans about the military’s treatment of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
“I do not welcome diplomats from other countries who visit Israel and meet organisations that call our soldiers war criminals. That is the reason why the meeting did not take place,” Netanyahu told Bild in an interview.
He added that relations between Israel and Germany were “extraordinarily strong” and that Israelis were thankful for Germany’s help in maintaining Israel’s security.
Germany regards itself as one of Israel’s closest allies and the cooperation and trade links are extensive. However, the legacy of the Nazi-era Holocaust, in which six million Jews were killed during World War Two, means relations are highly charged.
Gabriel, a Social Democrat who has spoken publicly about his rift with his late father, a convinced Nazi, visited the Middle East to press for a two-state solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
In March Germany cancelled an annual meeting of German and Israeli leaders planned for May amid rising frustration in Berlin with settlement activity in the West Bank.
Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Gareth Jones