Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to snub German Foreign Minister and Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel during his visit to Israel this week was impolitic. How wise was it to boycott an important dignitary from a country that has special and unique ties with Israel?
Certainly, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin did not make the same mistake, choosing to honor his appointment with Gabriel, who made a point of being in Israel on Holocaust Remembrance Day and visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, education and research center in Jerusalem.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed regret over the incident, but wisely refrained from blowing it out of proportion. Her spokesman correctly said, “It should not be problematic for foreign visitors to meet with official representatives of civil society.”
Netanyahu humiliated Gabriel after he ignored Netanyahu’s high-handed ultimatum not to meet representatives of Breaking the Silence, a non-governmental organization which monitors and publicizes human rights abuses by the Israeli army in the West Bank.
Breaking the Silence, whatever you may think of it, shatters Israel’s cherished myth that its occupation of the West Bank is a benevolent one.
In a reference to Breaking the Silence, Netanyahu’s office said he does not meet with those “who lend legitimacy to organizations that call for the criminalization of Israeli soldiers.” Echoing his comment, Michael Oren, an Israeli deputy minister, said, “It’s unacceptable for European leaders to come here to help those who degrade our soldiers as war criminals, and that’s what Breaking the Silence does.”
Founded by three army reservists in 2004 as the second Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip boiled over into violence and resulted in severe Israeli counter-measures, Breaking the Silence has several objectives. It exposes the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the West Bank. It gathers the anonymous testimonies of soldiers who’ve served in the occupied territories and witnessed inexcusable abuses against Palestinians. It thereby stimulates debate about the corrosive effects of the occupation, which it seeks to end.
Breaking the Silence claims that looting and the destruction of property by soldiers are the norm in the West Bank, and that Israeli society continues to turn a blind eye to these injustices.
Not surprisingly, Breaking the Silence has aroused deep enmity in Israeli right-wing circles. Rightists are particularly incensed that its representatives have been allowed into schools to lead discussions about the army’s role in the West Bank. Two years ago, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home Party, tried to ban it from the education system.
This jaundiced view of Breaking the Silence is not shared by all Israelis. Amiram Levin, a retired Israeli general, has said it reinforces the idea that morality must be an active component of the army’s code of ethics and conduct. Yuval Diskin, the former director of the Shin Bet, has praised Breaking the Silence for alerting Israelis to sensitive issues in the West Bank.
The former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, believes that Breaking the Silence tries to “sensitize” Israelis about an occupation that started with Israel’s conquest of the West Bank nearly 50 years ago.
Politicians like Netanyahu and Oren don’t, of course, agree with these sober assessments. They’re quick to equate legitimate criticism of Israel’s occupation with hatred toward Israel. This is an unfair and self-serving equation, but Israelis on the right are utterly convinced they’re on the side of the angels in the continuing national debate about the West Bank.
In fact, Netanyahu’s attacks on Breaking the Silence are consistent with his government’s campaign of harassment and vilification against organizations critical of Israeli policy in the West Bank. Last year, for example, Israel passed legislation requiring non-government organizations that receive more than 50 percent of their funds from abroad to provide details of their donations.
Critics regard the law as a frontal assault on such groups as Breaking the Silence and its sister organization, B’Tselem.
Gabriel, who has been foreign minister in January, understood he would antagonize Netanyahu by taking a meeting with Breaking the Silence. But he’s a man of conviction. Last year, Iran’s parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, shunned Gabriel after he declared that Germany could not have friendly relations with Iran unless the Iranian regime recognizes Israel.
Gabriel decided to meet representatives of Breaking the Silence partly because Germany is invested in it. According to reports, Germany has donated $1.5 million to it in the past four years. And like Breaking the Silence, the German government holds that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, plus its massive settlement project there, are inimical to a two-state solution.
These differences have caused considerable tension between Germany and Israel. Germany was particularly upset by the passage of a recent Knesset bill legalizing outposts built on private Palestinian land. In the wake of this egregious development, the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin released a statement chiding Israel: “The confidence we had in the Israeli government’s commitment to the two-state solution has been profoundly shaken.”
Israel’s bilateral relations with Germany are likely to remain fully intact despite its network of settlements in the West Bank and Netanyahu’s foolish faux pas. As Gabriel graciously said before leaving Israel, “We are committed to the friendship, partnership and special relationship with Israel, and nothing will change that.”
Clearly, Germany knows where its priorities lie.