German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel met with leftwing advocacy groups in Herzliya late Tuesday after defying an ultimatum by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel the meeting.
Shortly after the meeting, one of the groups, B’Tselem, called on the international community to punish Israel for the continued occupation of the West Bank.
Netanyahu had issued the ultimatum on Monday, telling Gabriel that if he met Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem and other groups, the prime minister would refuse to meet with Berlin’s top diplomat. Gabriel made clear he would not change his itinerary, and so his talks with Netanyahu were cancelled. President Reuven Rivlin did meet with him, however.
In a speech Tuesday evening before National Bible Quiz participants, Netanyahu insisted relations with Germany would not be harmed by his decision, which was consistent with standing government policy not to “meet with diplomats who visit Israel and meet with organizations that slander IDF soldiers and seek to put our soldiers on trial as war criminals” — a reference to Breaking the Silence, which publishes usually anonymous testimonies by IDF soldiers alleging rights violations in the West Bank.
“Those same diplomats would never dream of doing this in the US or UK, or in any other place,” said Netanyahu.
Sigmar lamented the cancellation, calling it “relatively surprising” since such meetings were “rather standard” for foreign diplomats.
He added that he didn’t want to be turned into “a plaything for Israeli domestic politics,” but said Germany was “committed to the friendship, partnership, and special relationship with Israel, and nothing will change that.”
“You can’t get a proper and comprehensive picture in any country on Earth if you only meet in government offices,” added Gabriel. “I can’t imagine that we would not do such things in the future just to get government appointments.”
Gabriel reportedly refused to take a phone call from Netanyahu on Tuesday afternoon explaining his position, and said that if Germany were to act in such a way with a visiting Israeli leader, “they’d think we were crazy.|
The Tuesday night meeting between the German diplomat and the left-wing Israeli NGOs took place without journalists or a photo-op, and Gabriel “didn’t say a word afterwards,” according to B’Tselem director Hagai El-Ad.
“Our message is the same message we delivered at the UN Security Council [in October 2016], the message we say to the Israeli public and won’t stop saying — the occupation must end and you can’t hide it, not from Israelis and not from the world,” El-Ad told Israel’s Channel 2 after the meeting. “That’s the truth and those are the facts and it’s not clear what the prime minister is so afraid of.”
At a Meretz party gathering in Tel Aviv shortly after the meeting, Breaking the Silence CEO Yuli Novak said of Netanyahu’s behavior that it was “so psychotic that a prime minister acts so unreasonably, by any standard. Calling him a diplomatic bull in a china shop would be a compliment.”
B’Tselem followed up the meeting by issuing an English-language press release calling on the international community to punish Israel for the continued occupation.
“There must be a price to pay for continued military control of another people while thumbing one’s nose at basic moral values and international law,” the statement said.
It claimed that “the Israeli prime minister and most of his colleagues in both the coalition and opposition parties have no intention of ending the occupation,” and added, “As long as it does not meet the minimum conditions of democracy, Israel cannot enjoy the privileges that go with being a card-carrying member of the club of democratic countries.”
In his own meeting with Netanyahu on Tuesday evening, Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said he tried to convince the prime minister to reinstate the meeting with Gabriel, but Netanyahu refused.
Gabriel has been Germany’s foreign minister since January and its vice chancellor since 2013. This is his first visit to Israel in the new job.
Netanyahu’s cancellation drew praise from fellow cabinet ministers, but was largely criticized by opposition politicians. Zionist Union lawmaker MK Tzipi Livni called it a “strategic mistake” that stems from “fear and weakness.”
“It places Israel and its government on the same level of importance as a small, marginal organization and makes a martyr of them [the left-wing NGOs] in the eyes of the world,” said Livni, a former Likud MK and foreign minister.