German president takes swipe at Netanyahu during Hebrew U lecture

JERUSALEM (JTA) — German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in a gibe at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told an audience at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem that diverse voices are the “oxygen of democracy.”

Steinmeier, who met earlier on Sunday with Netanyahu, was criticizing the prime minister for canceling a meeting last month with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel after he refused to nix a meeting with representatives of two left-wing NGOs: B’Tselem, a human rights watchdog, and Breaking the Silence, a veterans’ group that alleges the Israeli army abuses Palestinians.

“I believe that civil-society organizations which are part of the social debate deserve our respect as democrats, even when they take a critical view of a government – in Germany, but also here in Israel,” Steinmeier also said.

Steinmeier said that many had warned him that this was the wrong time to visit Israel, particularly in light of the Gabriel incident.

“Preserving the miracle that is this friendship is an unshakable task incumbent on us Germans. It was therefore clear to me that my first trip outside Europe as federal president would take me here to Israel. The events of the past two weeks have done nothing to change this – on the contrary, these discussions have strengthened my resolve to talk about democracy here in Israel,” Steinmeier said.

There was no media coverage of Gabriel’s meeting with the NGOs and afterward he made no comment.

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