Opposition leader Isaac Herzog warned Monday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was dealing a heavy blow to Israel’s relationship with “a true friend,” after the premier threatened to boycott a meeting with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel if he meets with two Israeli rights groups during his visit to the country.
“Netanyahu is fleeing the playing field,” Herzog said on Twitter. “Netanyahu’s ultimatum to the German foreign minister seriously harms Israel’s ties to Europe’s largest economy and a true friend of Israel.” He called on the prime minister to meet with Gabriel “and present him with the Israeli position, without fear of one organization or another.”
Herzog added that whatever the outcome of the diplomatic standoff, he would be meeting with Gabriel Tuesday to “present my positions and Israel’s positions, to strengthen ties and uphold Israel’s reputation.”
Gabriel arrived in Israel earlier in the day to participate in Holocaust Remembrance Day events and was set to hold talks with Netanyahu on Tuesday. During his time in Israel, the German minister also planned to meet publicly with two prominent left-wing Israeli rights organizations, B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, both of which have been accused by the government in the past of working to undermine Israel’s legitimacy by lobbying international forums.
This prompted Netanyahu’s office to issue the ultimatum, according to a Monday report by Channel 2 news.
Tzipi Livni, Herzog’s partner in the leadership of the Zionist Union party, also criticized the Netanyahu ultimatum, saying “Israel and the IDF have nothing to hide and the prime minister is supposed to face and answer — and there are answers — any complaint by any person or body in Israel and abroad.”
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid was more ambivalent in his response, writing on Twitter that while the premier should not cancel his meeting with Gabriel, he was “entirely right” to be angry. “If he were to meet radical leftist organizations in Germany, [Chancellor Angela] Merkel would be no less incensed,” Lapid wrote.
Netanyahu, who also serves as foreign minister, received support from his deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely.
“I back the prime minister’s decision to lay down a red line concerning anti-Israel organizations like B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence. This is an important campaign against those who defame Israel around the world,” she said.
Netanyahu’s bureau said it had “clarified” that the meetings were contrary to government policy and indicated that the German minister must choose between convening with Netanyahu or the rights groups.
A source told Channel 2 that “Israel lays down a clear policy, despite its close ties with Germany — with the aim of preventing the erosion caused by meetings between European representatives and these organizations.”
An Israeli official confirmed the report to The Times of Israel. “This message was clearly conveyed to the Germans,” the official said.
The German embassy in Israel did not immediately respond to media inquiries about the situation.
Channel 2 suggested that a lesser official from Gabriel’s entourage might meet with B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence instead.
Gabriel is also slated to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other officials over nascent peace efforts.
Earlier on Monday, Gabriel laid a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem — The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Jerusalem. Gabriel’s visit to Israel came as the country commemorated the six million Jews murdered by the German Nazi regime during the Holocaust and World War II.
He also visited Jordan, where he called for fresh peace talks.
“Waiting too long will open up a new field of play to the terror organizations of this world,” he said, according to Deutsche Welle. “If we neglect this conflict, it could cause a new series of violence in the region of a kind we have not yet seen in the past few years.”
B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, uses Palestinian photographers and videographers to document the conduct of Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank.
Last October the NGO’s executive director, Hagai El-Ad called for the United Nations to take action against Jewish settlements in the West Bank, telling a special session of the Security Council that Israel was creating facts on the ground in advance of any peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Breaking the Silence collects reports, usually anonymously, from IDF veterans about alleged abuses by soldiers in the West Bank. It has often locked horns with the Israeli political and military brass and its critics have denounced its reports as dishonest, inaccurate, and part of an advocacy campaign intended to harm Israel’s image overseas.
In February, Belgium’s ambassador to Israel Olivier Belle was summoned for a dressing down in the Foreign Ministry over a meeting by his country’s prime minister, Charles Michel, with representatives of the two NGOs.
Michel met with the heads of Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, despite a direct appeal by Netanyahu to Belgium to end its support to groups he considers damaging to the country.
Amid intense public debate over the legitimacy of left-wing NGOs operating in Israel, Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem have been the target of Knesset legislation aimed at curbing their political activity.
A bill that would prevent left-wing groups from holding events at Israeli schools passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset earlier this year.
The legislation is primarily directed at Breaking the Silence, but would give Education Minister Naftali Bennett the power to ban all groups “that work to damage the IDF” from entering any academic institutions.
Last June, the Knesset approved the so-called “NGO Law,” obligating certain nonprofit groups — including Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem — to declare all their foreign funding.
In December, a bill that would ban national service volunteers from working with Israeli organizations that receive the majority of their funding from abroad — namely left-wing human rights groups — overwhelmingly passed its preliminary Knesset vote in December.
The legislation enjoys coalition support and is expected to pass the additional readings.
Stuart Winer, Raphael Ahren and agencies contributed to this report.