For decades, Israel and Germany have enjoyed a special relationship marked by close political ties. Israel views Germany as a primary ally in Europe and as one of the most significant states in shaping EU policy. Likewise, Germany places Israel’s security as a top priority and has shown a deep commitment to the Jewish State since its post-World War II establishment.
However, the diplomatic clash from two weeks ago marked a low in German-Israeli relations. The rift arose from a cancelled meeting between German Foreign Minister’s Sigmar Gabriel and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, over FM Gabriel’s decision to meet with two far-left Israeli non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem. The controversy continued upon FM Gabriel’s return to Germany when he published an opinion piece equating Social Democrats and Jews as victims of the Holocaust.
There were many other possible scenarios that would have brought the affair to a far more diplomatic end. FM Gabriel could wider variety of NGOs, making his encounter with Israeli civil society more representative of the reality on the ground. Additionally, Gabriel’s insistence on meeting with two dissident NGOs, despite having held a series of meetings with opposition leaders, does not reflect acceptable diplomatic norms between democratic countries. For his part, PM Netanyahu could have chosen to meet with his German guest and confronted him publicly have met with a on the issues posed by these two political organizations.
In the whirlpool of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the significant role played by NGOs is not adequately addressed. Thus, despite the negative tone surrounding FM Gabriel’s visit, the fact that NGOs were brought to the forefront of the public debate is not necessarily an unwelcome development.
The problem, however, is that both FM Gabriel and PM Netanyahu inflate the influence and importance of B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence. Despite the attention, these two organizations do not represent the entire spectrum of civil society active in the Arab-Israeli conflict, nor are they the most damaging and harmful.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s visit to Israel this week could have been a terrific opportunity to divert the discourse to the truly relevant issues over which Israel and Germany have a consensus on – prevention of incitement and violence against civilians and countering terror.
Many NGOs manipulate human rights through the use of “resistance” rhetoric and blur the lines between violence and nonviolence, while belittling security concerns and even legitimizing attacks against civilians. Some of these same groups have ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – a designated terrorist organization by the EU, U.S., Canada, and Israel.
And, not to be overlooked, a large number of these are funded by the German government.
These should be the real issue.
For example, PASSIA is an NGO registered in Israel that has called the wave of stabbings that began in October 2015 a “youth uprising” and refers to Baha Eleyan – one of two terrorists to board a bus in Jerusalem in October 2015 armed with a gun and a knife, murdering three and injuring seven – a “Palestinian martyr.” Despite its glorification of violence, PASSIA is currently running a project together with the German public-benefit federal enterprise, GIZ.
Another example is the Palestinian NGO Al-Haq, which has received direct German government funding since 2013, as well as indirect funding through the German-funded NGO Medico International. Al-Haq’s General Director, Shawan Jabarin, has alleged ties to the PFLP and has been denied exit visas by Israel and Jordan.
Medico also funds the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), a Palestinian NGO that was founded in 1968 by members of the PFLP and is an official PFLP “affiliate.” As such, UAWC was identified by USAID as the agricultural arm of the PFLP.
Finally, a German-funded project on “strengthening non-violent initiatives” (2013-2016) involved the Palestinian NGO Popular Struggle Coordination Committees (PSCC) – an organization that, ironically, has organized protests that have turned violent. PSCC’s Twitter activity (December 2015 and onward) repeatedly employs “martyr” rhetoric and showcases photos of demonstrators hurling rocks. PSCC board member Manal Tamimi has promoted terrorism, violence, and virulent antisemitic rhetoric and imagery, as well as using Nazi and Holocaust rhetoric on her Twitter account.
NGO Monitor has informed the German federal program of these issues surrounding its project with PSCC. Although there was no government response, PSCC no longer appears as a partner.
To return to the events of last couple of weeks, the current diplomatic friction is diverting attention away from this central issue of German government-funded NGOs, their manipulation of human rights rhetoric, and the institutionalization of violent narratives.
Sadly, it seems that German president’s Steinmeier’s visit is yet another missed opportunity. German commitment to the Jewish state of which president spoke at Yad vashem should not refer only to historical but also to modern day challenges we face. In his speech at the Hebrew University Steinmeier stressed the importance of the civil society, however, just like FM Gabriel, he failed to address the many cases in which instead of promoting peace human rights organizations are the ones supporting and calling for violence.
Germany and Israel are thriving democracies and natural allies and should, therefore, not shy away from addressing such issues. The challenge to the alliance, however, lies on both ends of the partnership. Israel must show leadership in exposing the facts regarding truly dangerous organizations and their activities, instead of inflating the relevance of two unrepresentative groups. Likewise, German partners ought to carefully select and inspect, on a rolling basis, which organizations they support and partner with in trying to help broker peace and encourage dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.
The two high official guests from Germany did not assist in doing this and it seems we shall have to continue waiting for the next opportunity to open a channel for constructive parliamentary dialogue to address these important issues.