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Merkel sides with Gabriel in dispute with Israel's Netanyahu

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday defended her foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel, whose meeting with a group critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel talks.

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Netanyahu said in an interview with a German newspaper he had tried to telephone Gabriel to clear the air after cancelling the talks but the visiting German foreign minister would not take his call.

Asked if Gabriel had her backing, Merkel told the RND newspaper group: “Yes, he has that. We were in close contact during his visit to Israel.”

Netanyahu cancelled talks with Gabriel on Tuesday after the minister met members of “Breaking the Silence,” an Israeli organisation often criticised by the Israeli government over its collection of testimonies from Israeli veterans about the army’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank.

Merkel said she often meets civil society groups during her foreign travels, adding the dispute “changes nothing in our conviction that support for the state of Israel is part of our raison d’etat.”

The dispute threatens to widen a rift between Israel and Germany over Jewish settlement building in the Israeli-occupied West Bank by Netanyahu’s right-wing government.

Netanyahu, who is also Israel’s foreign minister, said he had tried to patch things up with Gabriel, telling German mass-selling daily Bild on Friday: “I wanted to telephone Foreign Minister Gabriel to explain my position and to clear things up, but he would not take the call.”

“I hope Gabriel meets me on his next trip to Israel rather than a radical fringe group that undermines Israel’s security,” he said.

“It seems Mr. Netanyahu is under big pressure over what he has done,” Gabriel said on Friday in Valletta. “This is why he is appearing in German newspapers.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer said Israeli officials had wanted Gabriel to meet representatives of Jewish West Bank settlers as a condition for the phone conversation, something the German side could not accept.

“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.

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.

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.

Reporting by Andreas Rinke and Hans-Edzard Busemann in Berlin and Tom Koerkemeier in Valletta; Writing by Paul Carrel and Joseph Nasr; Editing by Janet Lawrence