Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Berlin for talks on Iran and other issues on Thursday, leaving back home a crisis over a judicial overhaul by his far-right coalition that has triggered mass protests in recent weeks.
Netanyahu met Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who is seeking to reaffirm support for Israel while also conveying German unhappiness with Netanyahu’s plans. The Israeli government’s drive to limit Supreme Court powers while increasing its own power in selecting judges has caused alarm at home and abroad about the country’s democratic checks and balances.
Parts of Berlin were cordoned off to traffic as police geared up for protests in the German capital against the Israeli leader’s visit. Netanyahu has already shortened his trip amid security concerns.
Netanyahu and Scholz jointly visited Berlin’s Gleis 17, or track 17 from where more than 50,000 Jews were deported by train to the Nazi concentration camps between 1941 and 1945.
The sombre ceremony contrasted with the eruption of new protests in Israel. Flag-waving demonstrators marched through the streets and disrupted traffic, and overnight protesters painted a symbolic red line along roads to the Supreme Court.
Netanyahu wants the meeting with Scholz to focus on efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Germany also wants to discuss the implications of last week’s surprise reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Germany has already signalled its unhappiness with the planned judicial changes, which could also introduce the death penalty.
“I don’t want to hide the fact that we abroad are worried about some legislative projects in Israel,” Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said at a joint press conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen in Berlin last month.
“One of the values that unites us is the protection of rule of law principles, such as the independence of the judiciary,” she said, adding: “We are particularly concerned about the plan to introduce the death penalty.”
Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges that he denies, says the changes will strengthen democracy and boost business. Members of his coalition driving the overhaul hope to win parliament’s final approval of it by April 2.
Scholz’s government wants to underscore support for Israel and Germany recognising its responsibility for the Holocaust. But Gabriela Heinrich, a senior lawmaker in Scholz’s SPD party said blunt messages were needed.
“Precisely because of our deep friendship with Israel, German politicians are obliged not to mince words when it comes to concerns about the Israeli government’s actions,” Heinrich, the head of the German-Israeli parliamentary group, told Reuters.
The head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, also expressed concern over the judicial overhaul, saying that “a dismantling of democratic structures would also not be acceptable for the Jewish community outside of Israel”.
Thursday’s talks will likely touch on Germany’s wish to buy the Israeli-made Arrow-3 anti-ballistic missile defence system as part of a European shield that Berlin wants to establish with other countries.
Traffic in Berlin’s government district was severely restricted in the morning. Bridges over the river Spree were partially closed and guarded by armed police.