When trying to understand what led Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel his planned meeting with Sigmar Gabriel over the German foreign minister’s sit-down with a leftist NGO, it is easy to recall Henry Kissinger’s old adage that “Israel has no foreign policy; it has only a domestic policy.”
But the tale of how a top minister from a friendly country was declared persona non grata at the Prime Minister’s Office has international dimensions as well. Netanyahu evidently wanted to gain favor with his right-wing base, but he and his aides were also aware of the move’s potentially far-reaching repercussions beyond Israel’s borders. After weighing the pros and cons, he nonetheless decided to go ahead and boycott the foreign minister of the country with which the Jewish state has the most sensitive relations of all. Did he get his calculations right?
The saga started when Netanyahu’s office presented Gabriel with an ultimatum ahead of his first visit to Israel as foreign minister: either he canceled his planned sit-down with Breaking the Silence, or he would be disinvited from the Prime Minister’s Office.
Few organizations are more despised on the Israeli right — and by many who are not on the right — than Breaking the Silence, which publishes anonymous testimonies documenting alleged human rights abuses by Israeli soldiers. Hence, the decision to punish Gabriel for meeting the NGO’s leadership played well with Netanyahu’s political base and even won him rare accolades from some political rivals. Even the opposition did not rush with its usual enthusiasm to accuse him of destroying Israel’s foreign relations by snubbing Angela Merkel’s foreign minister and vice chancellor.
A few days after Netanyahu and his Likud party had come under fire for their rough and rude treatment of bereaved families, and less than a week before Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, indeed, the German minister’s insistence on meeting the unpopular NGO may have been regarded as something as a godsend by Netanyahu. It was the perfect opportunity for him to portray himself as a fearless protector of Israeli warriors and of their good name, a principled prime minister ready to stand up for them even if it meant snubbing a German minister.
Gabriel’s British colleague, Boris Johnson, met with Peace Now while on a trip to Israel, and US President Donald Trump’s special envoy Jason Greenblatt spent several hours with Palestinian organizations that have an equally negative view of Israeli policies in the West Bank. Neither got the Netanyahu boycott treatment. The prime minister has determined that Breaking the Silence belongs in a different category because it targets Israeli soldiers; his deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, had no hesitation in branding Breaking the Silence an “enemy” in a Wednesday interview on Army Radio, and in differentiating it from other left-wing Israeli NGOs, because, she said, it seeks to get Israel’s soldiers prosecuted for war crimes at The Hague.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policy is not to meet foreign visitors who on diplomatic trips to Israel meet with groups that slander IDF soldiers as war criminals,” his office declared Tuesday evening. “Diplomats are welcome to meet with representatives of civil society but Prime Minister Netanyahu will not meet with those who lend legitimacy to organizations that call for the criminalization of Israeli soldiers.”
Nonetheless, Israeli politicians would generally think twice before dictating to visiting leaders from friendly states which NGOs they can and can’t meet. Breaking the Silence is a legal organization, after all, not an outlawed terror group.
The domestic benefit was clear. But why did Netanyahu think it wise to antagonize the German foreign minister over talks with a marginal group that few people in Europe have ever heard of?
For one thing, he seems to have calculated that the fallout would be negligible. After all, what punitive steps could Berlin take? Merkel’s regret was a price Netanyahu was willing to pay.
Due to its dark history, Germany is sworn to solidarity with the Jewish people and has declared support for Israel as sacrosanct. Netanyahu knew that Germany would likely react to the affront by publicly turning the other cheek. And so it proved. While claiming that Israel would think “we were crazy” if Germany treated a visiting Israeli leader in the same way, Gabriel also declared, minutes after being disinvited, that the whole episode was “no catastrophe” and promised that Berlin’s relationship to Jerusalem would remain unchanged.
Privately, relations between Berlin and Jerusalem have been tense for years. Merkel has become increasingly fed up with Netanyahu, especially when it comes to the ever-growing settlement enterprise in the West Bank. It is hardly a secret that she cancelled joint Israeli-German government consultations originally planned for May 10 not because, as was publicly claimed, she is too busy preparing for the September election — she found time to host Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas last month — but because she was angry about Israeli legislation to retroactively legalize illegal West Bank outposts.
With bilateral relations already this lousy, Netanyahu may have mused, what harm would be done by one more slap in Germany’s face?
Gabriel, it should be noted, is no unknown quantity when it comes to Middle East policy. The son of an unrepentant Nazi and Holocaust denier (whom he disavowed), Gabriel angered Israelis in 2012 when he accused them of running an “apartheid regime” in Hebron. He also infuriated Iranians when he insisted they recognize Israel’s right to exist before Germany will normalize relations in Tehran. Ironically, he was snubbed by Iran’s parliament speaker over this demand.
Back home, his political star seems to be fading. Once expected to become the Social Democratic Party’s choice to challenge Merkel’s center-right CDU party in this year’s elections, he was bested inside the party by Martin Schulz. Since Schulz was nominated party chief and candidate for chancellor, the party has gained in the polls, fueling rumors that Gabriel will quit politics after the election.
So where Gabriel was personally concerned, too, Netanyahu may have concluded that he had little to lose and much to gain by vexing a waning politician from a country that most Israelis believe has no right to preach about democracy to Jews.
“Our relations with Germany are strong and important and will also continue as such,” Netanyahu declared confidently on Tuesday evening, at about the same hour that Gabriel was sitting down in Herzliya with the heads of Breaking the Silence and another left-wing NGO, B’Tselem.
The prime minister also clearly wanted to send a message to other world leaders coming to Jerusalem: If you legitimize Breaking the Silence, you will not be welcome in my office. Gabriel-Gate might make the next visiting leader think twice before scheduling an itinerary like Gabriel’s.
Nonetheless, by declaring a meeting with Breaking the Silence so outrageous as to merit the snub, the prime minister also conferred on the fringe group unprecedented political importance.
And he strengthened the impression that his government is increasing its crackdown on pro-Palestinian groups: What began with various bills aimed to make it harder for some NGOs to carry out their work, now extends to pressuring foreign dignitaries into avoiding contact with certain groups Netanyahu disapproves of.
“He could be called Vladimir Tayyip Netanyahu,” a prominent German columnist wrote on Wednesday, in an unflattering comparison with the leaders of two increasingly autocratic regimes.
It wasn’t only anti-Semites and known Israel-haters in Germany who took issue with Netanyahu’s move. Politicians from across the spectrum, including staunch supporters of Israel, slammed the ultimatum and praised Gabriel for not giving in.
“Prohibiting conversations is really not okay,” said MP Volker Beck, who heads the German-Israeli Parliamentary Friendship Group. While he called on Berlin to investigate whether the episode could have been avoided by meeting with different NGOs, Beck said he hoped Jerusalem realizes that the existence of groups like Breaking the Silence underlines Israel’s claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East.
“An exchange with the entire breadth of Israel’s civil society should remain a matter of course for future visits to Israel. One doesn’t talk only with people whose opinion one shares,” said Beck, a member of the opposition Green party.
Sanctioning talks with civil society organizations is very unusual and deeply regrettable, agreed MP Norbert Röttgen, a former minister from Merkel’s center-right party. “I hope this was a one-time slip.”
But Netanyahu does not consider his action a gaffe made in the heat of the moment or a diplomatic miscalculation he will not repeat. Asserting an ironclad belief in Israel’s growing diplomatic might, especially in the Trump era, he declared on Tuesday night that “I am leading Israel’s foreign relations to unprecedented growth. But I am doing so based on a proud and assertive national policy, not out of weakness and with a bowed head.”
A few hours later, during an event at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, he added that Israel is “considered a rising world power.”
It is his confidence in the increasing indispensability of Israel to allies and potential allies worldwide, and his particular belief in the critical value to them of Israel’s hi-tech and counterterrorism knowhow, that help explain the harsh punitive measures Netanyahu took against the United Nations and co-sponsors of December’s anti-settlement resolution at the Security Council, and that guided his boycott of Gabriel.
Has he also sidelined an organization that, Netanyahu said, “seeks to put our soldiers on trial as war criminals”? Or is he isolating Israel far more than a marginal group like Breaking the Silence ever could? Time, and the itineraries of foreign dignitaries, will tell.