JERUSALEM (AP) -- Germany's president said Sunday that despite recent disagreement the foundation of his country's relations with Israel remains solid -- a reference to a recent diplomatic spat over an Israeli anti-occupation group.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier is in Israel on his first foreign trip outside Europe since he was elected president earlier this year. It comes two weeks after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled talks with the German foreign minister because the visitor chose to meet Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli combat soldiers-turned-whistleblowers who oppose Israel's rule over the Palestinians.
The dispute has cast a shadow over what would otherwise have been a routine visit to Israel by the German president.
Netanyahu said after meeting with Steinmeier that Israel has a "unique partnership" with Germany. In an apparent dig at Breaking the Silence, Netanyahu said Israeli troops have "moral standards second to none."
The group says soldiers come forward with their war stories to shine a light on problems either unknown or ignored by the public. But many Israeli leaders have portrayed them as traitors, in part because their reports and lectures are often aimed at foreign audiences.
Steinmeier addressed the dispute 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."
Israel and Germany have had a long, close and complicated relationship. Israel was established in 1948 on the ashes of the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were systematically killed by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during World War II. The countries only established diplomatic relations in 1965.
Today, Germany is a key Israeli trade partner and ally in Europe, and assumes responsibility for the atrocities committed during the Holocaust.
But tensions occasionally flare up over Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. Germany, along with most of the international community, considers Israeli settlements in territory claimed by the Palestinians illegal. Israel says settlements should be resolved along with other core issues in peace talks.
Steinmeier said some advised he cancel or postpone his visit over the spat but he decided otherwise "not because I agreed with your prime minister's cancellation of the meeting with the German foreign minister, but because I believe that I would be amiss if I allowed the relationship between the two nations to get deeper into a deep end, which would harm both sides," he said.
"The relationship between Germany and Israel will always remain unique. We must not forget then when it is difficult and the wind is a bit stormy. Especially in such times, we are called upon to protect this precious heritage," said Steinmeier.