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German president visits Israel in wake of diplomatic spat

© AFP/File | It is German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier's first visit to Israel since taking up the post in March, although he has made the trip before while serving as foreign minister

JERUSALEM (AFP) - 

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier arrived in Israel on Saturday at the start of a three-day trip just days after a row between Germany's foreign minister and Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu.

Steinmeier's office said he would meet Netanyahu on Sunday. He is also scheduled to meet Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, and on Monday will call on Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas at his Ramallah headquarters in the occupied West Bank.

It is Steinmeier's first visit to Israel since taking up the post in March, although he has made the trip before while serving as foreign minister.

Netanyahu cancelled an April 25 meeting with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, after the visiting diplomat declined to call off meetings with rights groups critical of Israel's government.

Gabriel met members of Breaking The Silence, which seeks to document alleged Israeli military abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories, and of B'Tselem, which works on a number of human rights issues and strongly opposes Israeli settlement building.

Netanyahu's right-wing government says the groups unfairly tarnish Israel and strengthen the arguments of its enemies.

Steinmeier is not scheduled to meet either group.

Gabriel told journalists in Jerusalem after the snub he regretted Netanyahu's decision, but also said he did not think it would badly impact relations between the two countries.

Such disputes have arisen in the past between visiting foreign officials and Israel's government.

In February, Israel reprimanded the Belgian ambassador after his country's premier, Charles Michel, met members of both B'Tselem and Breaking The Silence during a visit to the Jewish state.

But there was no public rebuke when British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson met members of Peace Now, an anti-settlement non-governmental organisation, during a visit in March.

Israel has occupied the West Bank for 50 years, and Jewish settlement building in the Palestinian territory has drawn intense international criticism.

Israeli settlements are seen as illegal under international law and major stumbling blocks to peace efforts as they are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.

Germany is critical of Israeli settlement policy.

© 2017 AFP