With Election Looming, Spat With Israel Over Human Rights Can't Harm Merkel

Did the German chancellor send her foreign minister with a 'provocation' in mind? ■ Merkel, eyeing leftist voters, wants to show she isn't supplicating to Netanyahu

German Chancellor Angela Merkel shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following a press conference during the German-Israeli government consultations, Berlin, Germany, February 16, 2016.
Rainer Jensen, AP

The cancellation of the meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel due to the latter's intention of meeting with left-wing organizations including Breaking the Silence is a new nadir in the complex, unique and fraught relations between Israel and Germany.

Although Gabriel said even before the cancellation that "it won't be a disaster" if the meeting is cancelled and that the step wouldn't affect his attitude toward Israel, he then refused accept a call from Netanyahu and the story grabbed headlines in both the German and the Israeli media.

However, it's hard to imagine that Gabriel, an experienced and veteran politician who until recently headed the Social Democratic Party, was surprised by Netanyahu's harsh reaction. In fact, it's not impossible that he even predicted it and maybe wished for it.

This is not the first time that Gabriel has become embroiled in an incident of this kind during a visit to Israel. In 2012, after a visit to Hebron, he wrote on his Facebook page that the Palestinians are systematically discriminated against and called the situation in the territories "an apartheid regime." When deemed an anti-Semite by several Israelis, he clarified that in view of what he called violation of human rights in Hebron, "diplomatic language" wasn’t necessarily in order.

Is it possible that Chancellor Angela Merkel sent her deputy to intentionally provoke Netanyahu? We will probably need to wait for her memoirs to find out. But given that Merkel is heading toward elections in a few months, a confrontation with Israel in which Germany is portrayed as the defender of human rights, especially of a "persecuted people," is certainly not harmful to her from an electoral point of view.

The German people are more concerned with internal and European matters than with Israeli politics, but they clearly lean more toward in favor of the Palestinians than Israel. Merkel, as a representative of the right, and one who has championed the commitment to Israel and greatly upgraded the relations between the two countries, understands that well.

She is set to face Martin Schulz, Gabriel's successor on the German left, in the fall election. He already has a direct confrontation with Israel to his name. It happened in 2014 in the Knesset, when Schulz said that "a Palestinian is entitled to less water than an Israeli" and that Israel is "imposing a harmful siege on Gaza." He was swiftly condemned in Israel, but pundits who were involved in the internal politics of the European Parliament, which Schulz headed at the time, said that it wasn’t the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that interested him but the voters in Europe.

Will the diplomatic incident between Netanyahu and Gabriel turn out to be nothing but an internal German matter and not a real crisis in Israeli-German relations? Time will tell. But to see the entire picture, it must be noted that the last one to cancel a meeting with Israel was Merkel herself.  

At the beginning of the year, Merkel cancelled the summit that was planned for May between the governments in light of the law legalizing unauthorized West Bank outposts. Netanyahu cancelled his participation in a similar meeting in Berlin in 2009, claiming to be ill.

Merkel's rise to power 12 years ago signaled a significant warming in the relations between the countries and she upgraded them in practical terms. Merkel defined the nature of the relations specifically and unequivocally when she said in 2008, from the Knesset dais, "Here of all places I want to explicitly stress that every German Government and every German Chancellor before me has shouldered Germany's special historical responsibility for Israel's security. This historical responsibility is part of my country's raison d'tre. For me as German chancellor, therefore, Israel's security will never be open to negotiation."

The crack in relations, however, isn’t new. The deterioration in relations between the countries began in 2009, with Netanyahu's election as prime minister. Until then Merkel, who maintained good relations with Netanyahu's predecessor Ehud Olmert, refrained from publicly criticizing Israel. Now the two governments have begun to distance themselves from one another. This was reflected in chilly relations between the two leaders, and later spilled over into public confrontations.

In 2011, Germany voted in favor of a draft bill to condemn Israel in the UN Security Council for construction in the settlements. At the same time, it delayed approval for building the sixth submarine by several months, so that the German media reported that for the first time in the history of relations between Germany and Israel, the German government was conditioning the supply of strategic weapons to Israel on progress in the peace process.

In 2012, Germany abstained from a UN General Assembly vote giving Palestine non-member observer status in the organization. Netanyahu didn't conceal his anger. He said that like many others in Israel he was disappointed by the German abstention, adding that Israelis believe that there is a special relationship between Germany and Israel. He said that in his opinion the chancellor thought the vote would advance peace, but that it achieved the opposite.

After his meeting with Merkel that year she said that they had agreed not to agree, referring to construction in the settlements.

The confrontations between the countries continued in the following years. In 2014 the German government announced that financial assistance to Israeli high-tech companies would be conditioned on preventing the grant money from reaching the West Bank. Afterwards the German media reported a decision to cancel Germany's participation in financing an Israeli deal to purchase German patrol ships to protect Israel's natural gas platforms – a threat that was not carried out

There is no shortage of other examples. But the bottom line is clear: Merkel, who at the beginning of her tenure completely avoided criticizing Israel, changed her policy after Netanyahu's election in 2009. Now, more than ever, against the backdrop of the difficult election awaiting her at home, she doesn’t feel any obligation to play by the rules of Netanyahu's game.

It is more important to her to get potential voters from the left and show them that she's not fawning over Netanyahu but is loyal to an ideological and moral outlook of the sort that the Germans enjoy flaunting.

And yet, will Netanyahu's cancellation of the meeting be seen in Germany as the crossing of a red line and as a brazenness that will further undermine German patience toward Israel? Not necessarily. The reasonable, calculated and discreet Merkel has already seen plenty of Netanyahu's shticks.