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Netanyahu's Spat With Germany Shows Israel Won’t Be Treated as a Regular Democracy

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German Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel looks on during his meeting with Israel's President, Reuven Rivlin at the President's residence in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 25, 2017.
German Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel looks on during his meeting with Israel's President, Reuven Rivlin at the President's residence in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 25, 2017. Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

The Prime Minister’s Office said Tuesday that the leaders of the United States or Britain wouldn’t meet with foreign diplomats who met with NGOs calling American or British soldiers war criminals. True, Breaking the Silence, the group whose meeting with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in Jerusalem got his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled, has never called Israeli soldiers war criminals. But Netanyahu’s response was quite right.

Foreign leaders visiting Washington and London don’t meet with those kinds of NGOs not because Israeli soldiers are worse offenders than any offenders in those countries, but because Israel isn’t the United States or the U.K.

Foreign ministers, prime ministers and presidents of democratic nations, when visiting other functioning democracies, usually suffice with meeting the opposition leader. They only make a special point of meeting with leaders of civil-society and human-rights groups in countries where there is a special concern over these issues that they want to emphasize.

Barack Obama made a point of this on his historic visit to Cuba last year to meet with Cuban dissidents at the U.S. Embassy. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry did so often as well, making a point of this on visits to the capitals of Egypt and Russia, for example. But Israel wants to be seen as a Western democracy.

As a Western diplomat once stationed in Israel says, “these are the kind of meetings we have only in nondemocratic countries. So you can understand why Netanyahu is angry. But Israel doesn’t like to be reminded that while it is a functioning democracy, it also has this unusual issue of the occupation.”

There is nothing new about these meetings. Visiting Western politicians routinely meet with groups like Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, though they usually keep the talks low-key without press statements or photo-ops. This hasn’t usually caused a diplomatic incident like the one Tuesday with the German foreign minister. A similar meeting in February with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel which resulted the next day in a summons for a reprimand of the Belgian ambassador, at Netanyahu’s orders surprised the local diplomatic community.

“Netanyahu has moved the goal posts,” says one senior diplomat, but it’s unlikely to change anything. These meetings will continue at various levels, and they probably won’t cause much diplomatic damage either.

Canceling the meeting with Gabriel was described by one European diplomat as a “zero-cost move” since he’s not a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and recently resigned from the leadership of the Social Democrats due to his lack of popularity. The party has since shot up in the polls under its new leader, Martin Schulz, and Gabriel is now widely seen as a caretaker foreign minister until the September election and may not remain in politics after it.

Provoking such an incident with a politically weak German foreign minister at the end of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day is a blatant appeal to Netanyahu’s right-wing base. It gained him kudos even from bitter rivals in his own ideological camp like former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who only a few days ago called for Netanyahu’s resignation over corruption investigations.

For the prime minister it’s a ploy to gain some cheap political points at home with minimal diplomatic damage abroad. He already has a lousy personal relationship with Chancellor Merkel, and this hasn’t prevented Germany from subsidizing major sales of warships to Israel. A canceled meeting won’t end Germany’s commitment to Israel’s security, but it won’t stop Berlin and other governments from meeting with Israeli NGOs that work to expose the human-rights situation in the West Bank.

The Gabriel incident, however, does underline the fact that while Israel is nowhere near being internationally isolated, and the pitiful attempts to boycott it have entirely failed to even dent Israel’s burgeoning trade, the country still won’t be treated as a regular democracy in all things. Netanyahu claims to have led Israel’s foreign relations to an “unprecedented flowering,” but the occupation, for as long it continues, will remain a fly in the diplomatic ointment.

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