On the week that we remember and reflect upon the German genocide against Jews, the Jewish state is in a spat with Germany. On German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel’s agenda during his visit to Israel this week were meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu and NGOs Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, but after Gabriel refused Netanyahu’s ultimatum that he cancel his meeting with the two groups, Netanyahu canceled his own meeting with Gabriel. Unsurprisingly, this did not go over well, resulting in Gabriel then spurning Netanyahu in response and not taking his after-the-fact phone call, and now an ongoing passive aggressive war of words between the sides. Let’s break down what exactly happened here, and where it could have been handled differently.
Both sides here are right, and both sides here are wrong. Netanyahu insists that meeting with Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem crosses a line in that it gives legitimacy to organizations that defame the IDF and want to criminalize the very act of serving as an Israeli soldier. It is hard for outsiders to understand just how controversial these two NGOs are in Israel, and why it is not the same as Gabriel coming to the U.S. and meeting with, for instance, the ACLU. B’Tselem in particular does some important and vital work documenting abuses in the West Bank, but both organizations have a theory of change that involves as much international condemnation, opprobrium, and pressure on Israel as possible. Breaking the Silence’s primary audience is an international one, and B’Tselem issued a press release after meeting with Gabriel stating that “Israel cannot enjoy the privileges that go with being a card-carrying member of the club of democratic countries” so long as it occupies the West Bank. It is at once accurate to refer to both NGOs simply as human rights organizations but also deceptive to do so without any context, and Netanyahu’s anger at the German government legitimizing not only their causes but their methods is understandable.
The flip side of this is that Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem are not terrorist groups or criminal organizations, and they are in fact perfectly legal under Israeli law. Netanyahu treats meeting with them as if Gabriel met with representatives of Hamas, but what Gabriel actually did is meet with two controversial groups that oppose Israeli government policy. If we are now at the point that it is completely illegitimate for anyone to meet with a legal NGO in Israel, then Netanyahu has internalized a logic about democracy that is far afield from what it should be.
On the German side of things, foreign ministers routinely take numerous meetings with NGOs and other nongovernmental actors when traveling overseas. Gabriel is not the first foreign minister to meet with Israeli NGOs that oppose the current government; just last month, Boris Johnson met with Peace Now while in Israel. It would be unreasonable and unprecedented for the Israeli government to have the power to dictate with whom visiting diplomats do and do not meet. But Gabriel’s protestations of complete innocence also ring hollow given that Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem are not quite in the same category as Peace Now, the Geneva Initiative, or Ir Amim, with which he also met. To put it into an American context, it would be like Gabriel coming here and meeting with Code Pink, which most Americans would view as being outside the boundaries of what is appropriate. So both sides are now aggrieved, but the situation is not quite as black and white as it may immediately seem.
The bigger question though is not whether what Netanyahu did was right, but whether what he did was smart, and the answer to that is a lot less ambiguous. There is a very simple cost-benefit analysis that should have been done here, which is whether it is worth risking a rift with your most important and most reliable European ally to score some domestic political points. Any analysis that lands on the side of taking that risk over such a relatively minor issue is simply not credible. Even the attempted explanatory phone call was badly botched, in that the time for Netanyahu to call Gabriel and explain his position was before canceling the meeting and not after the deed had been done. I have noted before the way in which Netanyahu frequently acts as if he is the leader of a world power in his dealings with countries where the power asymmetry actually runs in the other direction, and this is yet another case where it does not serve him well. President Ruvi Rivlin’s approach was the eminently better one, in which he met with Gabriel so as not to risk damaging Israel’s key European relationship but very publicly voiced his criticism of Gabriel’s other engagements and explained precisely why the government views the two NGOs in question as beyond the pale.
This inevitable fallout from Netanyahu’s decision reminds me of the quote that is apocryphally credited to Albert Einstein defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. This is a much smaller and less fraught version of how Israel mishandled the investigation that led to the Goldstone Report, and will lead to a similar result. In that instance, Israel was also faced with activity by an international actor that it rightly and justifiably found objectionable. Its response was to refuse to cooperate with the investigation or meet with any of the investigators, resulting in an inevitably one-sided disaster of a report that did not reflect Israel’s position in any way since Israel had effectively created an environment in which the UN got a heavily biased accounting that went completely unchallenged. Similarly here, by refusing to meet with Gabriel but being unable to prevent Gabriel from meeting with Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, Netanyahu created a situation in which Gabriel heard the groups’ allegations and prescriptions for punishing the Israeli government but not Netanyahu’s version of things. Combined with the fact that he is invariably angry at Netanyahu’s behavior, the German foreign minister’s takeaways from this trip to Israel will be at odds with any narrative or goals that the Israeli government would have wanted to advance. Netanyahu did more on Tuesday to give Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem an unabated boost of influence with the German government than the groups could ever have accomplished on their own. The irony in all of this is that Netanyahu’s reason for shunning anyone who meets with these groups is that they harm Israel in the international arena, yet he himself just harmed Israel in the international arena himself by allowing these NGOs to tie him in knots.
Finally, there is one last angle here to note. The ongoing police investigation into what is referred to as Case 3000 deals with an agreement for Israel to buy German submarines that may have involved corruption and bribes involving Netanyahu’s personal lawyer and other Netanyahu associates. A couple of weeks ago, Germany insisted that the deal be automatically cancelled should the corruption charges be proven true, which will not only be embarrassing for Netanyahu personally but may lead to eventual legal trouble for him. Oftentimes with Netanyahu, he will do something publicly for one reason when it turns out that the actual reason is different, such as when he brought down his own previous government and called elections ostensibly because of disagreement over the budget but really because of the Yisrael Hayom bill. In this case, I would not rule out the possibility that Netanyahu is looking down the road and foreseeing that the German submarine deal is going to cause him political problems. Portraying Israel – and himself – as a victim of German bias in this instance will allow him to dismiss in the court of public opinion any later revelations coming from Germany as retaliation and leaks designed to make him look bad for standing up to German bad behavior. As with the actual justice or injustice of meeting with Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, nothing here may be what it seems at first glance.