Middle East

Israel's Netanyahu scraps talks with German minister over rights groups

Sigmar Gabriel in Jerusalem (25/04/17) Image copyright EPA
Image caption Germany and Israel have been close allies for decades

Israel's prime minister has cancelled talks with Germany's foreign minister after he refused to call off a meeting with Israeli human rights activists.

Sigmar Gabriel had been due to meet Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

Mr Netanyahu had warned he would not see Mr Gabriel if he met the groups Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem.

Mr Netanyahu has accused the groups of trying to undermine the state, and the government has taken steps to try to stem their foreign sources of funding.

The incident threatens to stoke diplomatic tensions between Israel and Germany, which are strong allies.

Mr Gabriel had said it would be a "remarkable event, to put it mildly" if Mr Netanyahu went through with his threat.

"Imagine if the Israeli prime minister... came to Germany and wanted to meet people critical of the government and we said that is not possible... That would be unthinkable," he told Germany's ZDF television.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Breaking the Silence gathers anonymous claims of abuses by the military

Mr Netanyahu's office said he refused to meet any diplomats who "lent legitimacy to organisations calling for the criminalisation of Israeli soldiers".

The statement said: "Imagine if foreign diplomats visiting the United States or Britain met with NGOs that call American or British soldiers war criminals. Leaders of those countries would surely not accept this."

However Mr Netanyahu said Israel's "very important" relations with Germany would not be affected by the incident.

'Unreliable accusations'

The Israeli government has taken an increasingly robust stand against left-wing non-governmental organisations, which it sees as hostile to the state.

Breaking the Silence, a group of former soldiers, gathers anonymous testimony from within the military about alleged abuses of Palestinians by the army.

Israeli authorities have accused it of making unreliable accusations. Mr Netanyahu has called its activities "insufferable" and warned foreign officials against meeting members of the group.

B'Tselem is one of Israel's leading human rights groups and has come under similar criticism.

In an attempt to make such groups more transparent, Israel passed a law last year requiring them to declare if they receive more than 50% of their funding from foreign entities.

The move was criticised for unfairly targeting human rights groups, which would predominantly receive donations from foreign states.