German President Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier arrived in Israel on Saturday for a three-day work visit, setting aside the diplomatic spat over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's refusal to meet with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel after the latter met with the far-left organizations Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem.
Steinmeier began his visit by attending a ceremony held at Yad Vashem's Memorial Hall on Sunday morning.
Steinmeier wrote in the visitors' book, "We the Germans have brought upon ourselves an unthinkable guilt. Here in this place, memory becomes pain, sorrow and shame. While taking responsibility for what happened, we stand by Israel and work for a common future."
During what has become a highly publicized visit following a recent row over German politicians and Israeli left-wing organizations, Steinmeier decided to respect Netanyahu's wishes and will not meet with Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem. However, he does plan to mention them in his speech on Sunday night at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and stress their importance in strengthening Israeli democracy.
Following the German president's arrival and his visit to Yad Vashem, President Reuven Rivlin joined Steinmeier and his wife Elke Budenbende for a tour of Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, which had in recent years become a nightlife hub of entertainment, cafes, restaurants and bars.
The two met with leading figures and entrepreneurs from the market, and heard about the transformation the city and the market had undergone in recent years.
During the tour, the two presidents tasted some Israeli craft beers, and toured the “Shuk (market) Gallery” created by graffiti artist Solomon Souza, who painted works in graffiti throughout the market on the store shutters, depicting famous Israeli and world figures.
Souza surprised President Rivlin by showing him a new piece of work, depicting the president’s late great-grandfather, Yosef Rivlin, who was among the founders of the initial construction of neighborhoods outside of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Steinmeier was welcomed Saturday night upon his arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport by PMO Minister Ayoob Kara (Likud), who told German journalists accompanying Steinmeier that he was glad to hear the German president does not intend to meet with Breaking the Silence or B'Tselem.
Kara then added that, while Israel and Germany have an important alliance, and he values Berlin's support, it is important for him to stress that Israel does not appreciate it when foreign officials meet with "extremist left-wing groups that undermine Israel and IDF soldiers and besmirch them internationally."
Steinmeier also visited Mount Herzl on Sunday, where he will pay his respects to late former President Shimon Peres. Afterwards, he will meet with German volunteers, meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu and give a speech at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
During Steinmeier’s visit to Rivlin’s residence on Sunday, Rivlin delivered a statement welcoming his German counterpart to Jerusalem, lauding “the special and respectful relations between Germany and Israel” which he said “are flourishing.”
Rivlin then went on to list Israel’s “vibrant democracy, with different, diverse, and critical voices,” using it as a segway into UNESCO’s recent passing of a resolution calling for the revocation of Israeli sovereignty in all of Jerusalem.
“Sometimes, these voices are hard to digest, and outrageous, and specifically out of our obligation, and respect to other opinions, we reject the latest decision of UNESCO which defines Israel as an occupying power in Jerusalem, our capital, in which you are standing right now Mr. President,” he said while turning to Steinmeier.
“A people cannot be an occupier in its own land. We are not occupiers in our own capital. We welcome Germany’s opposition to the distorted and twisted text of this decision," he added in reference to Germany’s refusal to vote for the resolution.
Delivering his statement, Steinmeier said that "Our relationship is too important and deep to be dependent on this or that discussion,” adding that even when there are disagreements between the two countries, “as there have been in the past, they do not endanger these foundations.”
He added that his visit was intended to “further strengthen the relations between us and to reinforce even more their roots. As friends, in my opinion, we have no need for new rules of behavior, and we do not need to fear what someone may say."
Steinmeier addressed the dispute regarding Breaking the Silence at a speech in German at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
He said diverse voices are “the oxygen of democracy” and said he believes “those who raise their voice, who criticize, but also respect the voices of others—they are not traitors of the people, but guardians of the people.”
On Monday he will visit Givat Haviva, meet with Holocaust survivors, meet with several other left-wing organizations, and then visit Ramallah.
(Translated & edited by Lior Mor)