German ambassador’s attendance at Israeli court hearing ignites diplomatic spat

AP  /   September 19, 2023

JERUSALEM – The Israeli government has complained to Germany after the German ambassador attended a high-profile Supreme Court hearing last week looking at the legality of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul, an Israeli diplomatic official said Monday.

The complaint, sent at the order of Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, sparked a rare diplomatic spat between the two allies, with German leaders defending their ambassador against the criticism.

The Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing behind-the-scenes diplomacy, said that Israel had relayed its “dismay” through diplomatic channels, including the Israeli Embassy in Berlin.

“This was a decision taken by the highest figure in the ministry,” he added. Cohen is a close ally of Netanyahu.

Last Tuesday’s hearing was the first challenge to Netanyahu’s contentious judicial overhaul, which has bitterly divided the Israeli public and put the country on the brink of a constitutional crisis.

Ahead of the hearing, German Ambassador Steffen Seibert posted a video of himself on X, formerly known as Twitter, inside the courtroom under the heading: “The place to be this morning.” It included the Hebrew hashtag for Israel’s Supreme Court.

“I think something important is happening here for Israeli democracy,” he said, speaking in Hebrew. “We, as friends of Israel, are watching the Supreme Court with great interest and I wanted to see for myself.” Seibert did not express an opinion on the case in the video.

In New York, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz defended his government’s envoy against the Israeli criticism.

“The German ambassador is a very committed man with very clear principles. And I believe that everyone knows that – including in Israel,” Scholz told journalists.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock added that it is the “everyday business of diplomats” to monitor developments in foreign countries. “It’s also normal to go to public hearings or public court cases – it’s part of his job,” she said.

Scholz and Netanyahu are scheduled to meet Tuesday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.