Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the foreign minister of Germany, one of Israel’s oldest and strongest allies, a choice: Either meet with me or with Israeli human rights groups, but you can’t meet with both. While it is hard to believe that Netanyahu would snub Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, that is exactly what he did.
Netanyahu’s complaint was that Gabriel, while on a visit to Israel for Yom HaShoah, was planning to meet with Breaking the Silence, a controversial leftwing Israeli group that publishes anonymous testimonies alleging human rights abuses by Israeli soldiers. Breaking the Silence is unpopular in Israel, but it is a legal organization. Netanyahu said he would boycott the German foreign minister because his meeting gave credence to an organization that, in the prime minister’s words, “defames IDF soldiers and [tries] to prosecute our soldiers as war criminals.”
Netanyahu’s clumsy handling of the situation appears to have achieved the opposite of his stated intention. It is one thing for Israel’s leader to disagree publicly with the German foreign minister — even impolitely, much like Netanyahu’s memorable public lecturing of President Barack Obama — and quite another to actually boycott the foreign minister’s visit. The boycott is bound to have diplomatic consequences.
And rather than weakening Breaking the Silence and other leftwing advocacy groups, Netanyahu’s actions actually gave them more credibility. By forcing Gabriel to choose between Breaking the Silence and himself, Netanyahu left the foreign minister two bad choices: Either succumb to humiliation by Netanyahu and back out of the challenged meeting or go forward with the commitment to the human rights group and refuse to follow orders from Netanyahu.
The whole episode was, of course, red meat for the Israeli right, and perhaps that was the point. Israel’s far right has been emboldened of late and has targeted leftwing pro-Palestinian groups with all sorts of legislative challenges and administrative hurdles. So the right was probably pleased to see the Gabriel confrontation.
But pretty much everywhere other than the Israeli right, the reactions were negative. For example, in response to the Netanyahu boycott, one German columnist invoked Turkey’s autocratic leader and wrote, “He could be called Vladimir Tayyip Netanyahu.” And there were similar reactions from others.
But there is a more fundamental point, made by Volker Beck, who heads the German-Israeli Parliamentary Friendship Group, who said that “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.” And the same sentiment was echoed by Mark C. Toner, deputy spokesman for the U.S. State Department, who observed that diverse viewpoints are “a vital part of any functioning democracy.”
By bending over backward to pander to his right flank, Netanyahu sent a message of intolerance and hostility to diverse opinions — an approach that is fundamentally inconsistent with Israel’s democratic principles. Netanyahu should know better.