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Netanyahu's Snub of the German FM Was a Pathetic Political Game - and It Paid Off

Here's why he didn't ask President Rivlin to boycott Germany's Sigmar Gabriel as well

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration: Netanyahu rejects German FM Gabriel's handshake. The latter is wearing a B'tselem t-shirt.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Three sides were involved in the spat between Israel and Germany this week. All three gained from it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged as a man’s man in the eyes of his constituency. He showed the Germans what’s what – and on Holocaust Day, too. The German foreign minister, visiting Israel, benefited in the eyes of his voters, who will go to the polls in September, for not buckling in the face of Netanyahu’s ultimatum and for preferring to meet with representatives of human rights groups rather than with the prime minister. In Germany, where most of the public is pro-Palestinian, behavior like that earns you points.

But the biggest winners are undoubtedly the two organizations that Netanyahu elevated to a level of importance equal to that of the government and himself: the anti-occupation Breaking the Silence group and B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. They got more publicity this week than 100 promotional campaigns could ever generate. “Today, every child in the country knows who they are,” the visiting German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, remarked to an interlocutor. “What did Bibi achieve by this?”

The heightened exposure will probably result in heightened donations to the two groups. If they have an iota of fairness, they could siphon off a tithe to PR man Netanyahu. No envelopes needed – the supply of cigars and champagne, recently cut off under unfortunate circumstances, can be renewed to the Balfour Street residence in Jerusalem.

Sigmar Gabriel is considered one of Europe’s most powerful and influential politicians. He has a very impressive résumé back home, and is held in high regard around the globe. Gabriel often visits Israel in a private capacity. He has an Israeli friend who held a diplomatic post in Germany and who contracted a serious illness after returning home. Gabriel flew to Israel once a month, stayed with the friend and looked after him until he had recovered. In short, he’s a good man, a mensch.

He’d planned to meet representatives of the two human rights groups after finishing all the other meetings on his itinerary, at the residence of the German ambassador, in Herzliya Pituah. It was going to be a closed meeting, without photographers or a press release. No one would have known about it, either before or after. But Israel’s Foreign Ministry got wind of it and informed the minister – who also happens to be the premier. Netanyahu pounced on the information, of course. A responsible leader and statesman who sees the big picture would have gritted his teeth and done nothing. A politician who sees only the electorate will not miss an opportunity to draw applause and accolades from the gallery.

Opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union/Labor), who met Tuesday with Gabriel for breakfast at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, found him hurt and upset. After the meeting, Herzog immediately called Reuven Rivlin. “What can we do so that Bibi will meet with him? Maybe you can call him,” Herzog urged the president. Rivlin, chastened by experience, decided to skip that particular pleasure.

Gabriel is slated to visit Israel again in another two months. “Next time I won’t even ask for a meeting with Netanyahu,” he told one of the people he met with. “I can get along without him, too.”

The German minister was actually at the President’s Residence when he received the news that the premier had canceled their meeting. He was handed a note while talking with Rivlin. He glanced at it and grimaced.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin welcomes German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 25, 2017. Credit: GALI TIBBON/AFP

Rivlin, the voice of sanity in Jerusalem, never considered calling off his own meeting with the guest. Interestingly, he was also not asked to do so. According to diplomatic protocol, a head of state does not meet visiting foreign or defense ministers unless asked to do so by the Foreign Ministry. In Israel, visiting senior ministers from strategically important countries, such as the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, meet only with the president according to Foreign Ministry directives. This procedure was followed in Gabriel’s visit.

When the scandal erupted, the president’s office called a senior Foreign Ministry official to find out if there would be a change in Rivlin’s schedule. The official was taken aback: Heaven forbid, he said, there’s no change. Of course you’ll meet with Gabriel.

Israel’s foreign minister, for those who may have forgotten, is Benjamin Netanyahu. This is all classic Bibi. With his right hand he slaps the face of the German minister, a friend of Israel, and pokes a finger in the eye of Chancellor Angela Merkel. With his left hand he sends the German guest to the President’s Residence to meet with the country’s No. 1 Citizen.

If Netanyahu indeed has “a policy,” as he puts it, of shunning foreign visitors who meet with anti-government organizations, that policy is not his private affair: It should also apply to the Foreign Ministry, which he heads. But this isn’t a policy matter, it’s a “political game,” as the German foreign minister noted correctly. A cynical, transparent, pathetic game.

There were three reasons Netanyahu did not instruct Rivlin to boycott the German minister. First, to signal to the Germans that he’s only pretending to be angry, that this was an exercise staged solely for domestic consumption. Second, to keep the dialogue going, despite everything, with the most important country in Europe, which is also Israel’s greatest friend on the Continent. And third, to broadcast to his voters that he’s nationalist, right-wing and protector of the people of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces – in contrast to the president, who is left-wing, anti-Israel and abandons soldiers. One might think that Rivlin was planning to run against him in the next election.

It’s the same old shopkeeper mentality that has long characterized Netanyahu. It’s how he preserves his rightist posture in the eyes of his voters. He’s not building in Jerusalem. He’s not building in the West Bank. He’s evacuated the pirate settler outpost of Amona, he’s demolished nine illegal dwellings in the settlement of Ofra, he’s repeated his commitment to the two-state solution.

He’s not truly right-wing. He’s not Naftali Bennett, head of Habayit Hayehudi. He’s an utter cynic. But to blur reality and bedazzle his electoral base, he adopts an ultra-right posture with braggadocio and frequent Miri Regev-style provocation and vulgarity. Everything is legitimate and permitted: persecution of left-wing organizations, systematic incitement against Arabs, the mad witch hunt against the public broadcasting corporation and the enactment of antidemocratic and racist legislation in the Knesset. It’s of no interest to the premier that Israel’s image as a democratic, liberal country is being progressively eroded.

And it works. Clearly. A cabinet minister who attended a soccer game between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Be’er Sheva on Tuesday evening asked six Maccabi fans for their opinion about the incident with the German foreign minister. Five of the six said: “Bibi was right.” What more does he need?

Yair Lapid.Credit: David Bachar

Fake democrat

On Tuesday, the Knesset debated a bill to postpone the start of broadcasts by the new public corporation. Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid, in a rare appearance, took the podium. As always, he wore an Israeli-flag pin in his lapel, trumpeting his patriotism. For who is a greater defender of Israel among the nations than Yair (“We love Israel! We love Israel!”) Lapid?

The former finance minister didn’t talk about the broadcasting corporation. It’s contrary to his self-interest to remind the public of his failed tenure in the treasury, during which he encouraged and budgeted the reform in public broadcasting. Instead, he talked “about democracy” and proceeded to spout a long series of hollow, childish phrases that he might have culled from a primary school civics textbook.

“Life in a democratic society,” doctoral candidate Lapid intoned, “is not only the right we have, it is also the duty we have undertaken, the duty to know, the duty to respect the other, the duty to listen. Freedom of expression is not intended for what’s pleasant to hear. It’s intended for all the annoying, infuriating, brazen things that we don’t want to hear. Democracy,” he summed up, “has a price – its price is freedom of expression.”

Those fine words were declaimed by a politician who, upon reading every controversial, hard-to-swallow, “brazen and infuriating” article that appears in this newspaper, erupts in a volcanic tirade of choice denunciations, notably “anti-Semitic” and “anti-Zionist.”

This is preaching we get from the prime ministerial wannabe who is second only to the current prime minister in his systematic, unrestrained campaign of persecution of Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem and other groups, which he labels “radical left.” (In Lapid’s lexicon, human rights = radical left.) And this doctrine is being espoused by a former journalist who blasted the appointment of the partner of a senior figure in Breaking the Silence as editor of Haaretz English Edition. If self-righteousness, cynicism and opportunism were a painful disease, Lapid would have to live in a hothouse for medicinal cannabis.

Shabbat specter

The moment when Yesh Atid reached the same level as Likud in public opinion polls, and even led in terms of the number of Knesset seats it was predicted to garner in the next election, was last summer, after the flareup connected to Israel Rail’s repair work on Shabbat. Netanyahu, yielding to the pressure of the ultra-Orthodox parties, ordered the work to be stopped, inflicting suffering, delays and anxiety among hundreds of thousands of people, who found themselves caught in vast traffic jams. And when the pollsters called, those people remembered what they had endured.

The lessons of that trauma are engraved in Netanyahu’s memory. The last thing he wants is to be dragged by the Haredi parties into enacting legislation that would circumvent the High Court of Justice ruling on the opening of supermarkets on Shabbat in Tel Aviv – or, alternately, prevent other municipal governments from deciding for themselves what will be open and what will not. Such legislation is liable to be a death blow for Likud.

It goes without saying that the vast majority of the public likes the High Court decision. It also goes without saying that the one issue on which Haredi politicians, under pressure from their militant media, cannot allow themselves to compromise, is Shabbat. As long as the convenience stores and supermarkets operating on Shabbat were in breach of the law, the Haredim said nothing. Interior Minister Arye Dery (Shas) understands that he has no public mandate – a commodity that Dery in particular holds dear – to impose his way of life on the majority of the country’s citizens. But when it comes to Shabbat observance, he has no religious legitimacy to compromise.

The moment the High Court intervened – as a result of the negligence of various Israeli governments – and ruled that 164 businesses in Tel Aviv will remain open on Shabbat, while more than 100 others will have to stay closed, the masked ball ended. Henceforth, Shabbat violation is officially sanctioned. The Haredim in the coalition can’t lend a hand to that.

This week, representatives from Shas, United Torah Judaism and Habayit Hayehudi met with Yariv Levin, a Likud minister who is close to Netanyahu, and demanded a solution in the form of legislation. “Don’t make light of it,” they warned Elkin. “Over this, we will dismantle the coalition in a minute.”

Beforehand, during the weekly meeting of leaders of the coalition parties, Netanyahu admitted that the “status quo” has been badly eroded in recent decades. “When I was interior minister the first time [in 1988], nothing was open [on Shabbat],” Dery grumbled.

It may sound totally disconnected from the current “calm after the storm” atmosphere prevailing in the wake of the broadcasting corporation debacle, but this is a powder keg that clearly imperils the government. Religious parties left the Yitzhak Rabin government in 1976 and the Ehud Barak government in 1999 over Shabbat desecration. Toppling the coalition and going to an election on this issue would provide an excellent jumping-off place for UTJ and Shas in a campaign.

On Wednesday, a special meeting about the High Court ruling was held in the office of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. Dery asked him to request the High Court to reconsider the matter. If Mendelblit agrees, such a procedure will take weeks, perhaps months. Until then, the coalition will remain intact. If he declines, this government may well not survive the Knesset’s summer session.

If the winter session was dominated by Amona and the broadcasting corporation, the summer session could take place in the shadow of Shabbat.

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amiram Levin.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Command performance

On July 4, when the Labor Party holds its leadership primary, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amiram Levin will be three days shy of his 71st birthday. Twenty years after leaving the IDF, Levin is still considered to be one of the most original and daring of the commanders of Sayeret Matkal, the elite Special Forces unit. Nevertheless, his name means nothing or next to nothing to people below the age of 45 or 50.

This week, Levin announced, via a video clip on his Facebook page, that he will run for leadership of Labor. He’ll be one of six, alongside current leader Herzog, former leader MK Amir Peretz, former minister from Kulanu Avi Gabbay, MK Omer Bar-Lev (also a Sayeret Matkal veteran) and MK Erel Margalit.

I asked Levin what in the world had prompted him to enter politics at his age. “The situation is grim. We’re moving in the wrong direction,” he replied, stating the self-evident. But still, why now? “None of the candidates has the stature to be able to return the party to power,” he explained. “I waited until this week to see if someone would appear.”

Asked who he thought has stature, he replied, “There was talk about [former Chiefs of Staff] Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz, also about Moshe Kaplinsky [a former deputy chief of staff]. When I saw who was [actually] running, I told myself that there was no choice, I have to try.”

Whom did he consider good Labor Party leaders? “Rabin was a leader. Also Barak, whom I hold in very high regard. Since Barak, there hasn’t been anyone.”

Are only retired generals worthy of heading the party? At this, Levin quickly corrected himself. “Obviously, not just generals. But when you come with military thinking and experience, you come with an ability to manage, analyze, lead, identify hitches, diagnose ailments correctly and find solutions. That’s what I did in the many military posts I held, particularly in Matkal. I turned every organization I headed into a winning organization.”

I put it to him that Labor isn’t exactly Matkal, that things are managed a little differently there. “I know,” he said, “but when you come from the outside you come without baggage. An external candidate has both limitations and advantages. The advantages are that you’re not beholden to anyone, you don’t owe anyone anything. You can do a ‘tear down-rebuild’ project, and that’s what I’m going to do there.”

I asked him about his chances. “I know they’re not great,” he admitted. Isn’t it a bit presumptious to go straight for the party leadership – what about a term in the Knesset first? “I’m not at that age,” Levin said.

Registration of candidates for the party leadership race closed at midday Thursday. All agree that one of the two who will go on to the second round of voting will be Amir Peretz. He’s an excellent and experienced campaigner. His recruiting methods, particularly among the Arabs and the Druze, population groups whose members often vote by clan, on instructions from the clan leaders and vote-wranglers, generated criticism in the past and do so today, too.

All the other candidates are vying for the opportunity to enter a second round runoff with Peretz. Herzog is telling people that, contrary to prevailing opinion, he is not considering retirement. But he might, if re-elected as party chair, recruit someone from outside to be the bloc’s candidate for prime minister. “I’ll put ego aside,” he said.

Will it be Ehud Barak? Probably not. Nonetheless, last Friday, he posted another video on his Facebook page in which he went farther than previously in conveying the feeling that he is on the verge of returning to politics.

In the face of Netanyahu’s agenda, Barak declared, with pathos, “What’s needed is vigorous, self-confident organization that puts security above all else, and unity of the nation above Greater Israel. A group with courage to make decisions and with the inner strength to implement them. It won’t happen without resistance, it’s not going to be a picnic. The moment of decision is approaching. Now it’s time for thought. The time for action will come.”

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