Lost amid this week’s brouhaha over the non-meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel was the Holocaust Remembrance Day visit of Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern.
This was Kern’s first-ever visit to Israel, and capped events marking 60 years of diplomatic ties with Austria, a country with which Israel has, over the years, had an uneasy relationship, owing to its previous reluctance to accept its own responsibility for the Holocaust; because of its pro-Palestinian sympathies, going back to the days of Kurt Waldheim and Bruno Kreisky; and because of the antisemitic right-wing parties in that country, which were a prominent force long before the current populist wave sweeping the Continent.
But things have changed, and these changes do tie into the Netanyahu-Gabriel brouhaha
Over the last half-year, much of the Austrian government has visited Israel, including its foreign minister and ministers of defense, finance, education and interior.
In the past, according to a senior Austrian diplomatic official, these visits would have generated a torrent of domestic criticism. There would have been loud voices in Vienna asking why the Austrian defense minister was visiting militaristic Israel and forging stronger military ties with the country that quashes Gaza, or why the interior minister is visiting a country that builds a wall to keep out the Palestinians.
But now, considering Austria’s own challenges facing terrorism and migration, these visits cause much less domestic controversy, as there is an interest in learning from Israel’s experience in fighting terrorism and building border barriers.
Austria is a good case study of a European country whose attitudes toward Israel are changing because of the changes sweeping Europe. Or, as Kern told The Jerusalem Post
this week, “I think there are a lot of lessons we can learn, and take away, from Israel.”
Netanyahu, who meets regularly with foreign leaders when they visit, hears this over and over, and that has reinforced a real sense in his mind that it is not only Israel that needs the countries of the world, but that these countries also need Israel – and not only the developing countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia, but also the super-developed countries in Europe.
One could argue that Netanyahu is overstating the case, and that the world does not need Israel’s technology as much as he likes to think, but understanding that mind-set is necessary to fathom the premier’s decision to snub Gabriel this week, after the German diplomat insisted on meeting the far-left NGO Breaking the Silence, despite Israel’s appeal that he not do so.
Though Netanyahu’s critics and Gabriel himself argue that this move was just the result of domestic Israeli politics – Netanyahu’s gesture to his right wing, which loves to see Israel’s leaders stand up to the world, especially to Europe – the move needs to be seen in the context of a more muscular diplomatic policy Netanyahu has charted for months.
This policy was on full display in the winter of 2015, immediately following the European Union’s decision to label products from the settlements, when Netanyahu gave a directive to suspend contact with the EU on issues pertaining to the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
And it was again on glaring display last December, when Israel disinvited Ukraine’s Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman from visiting, after Kiev voted for the anti-settlement UN Security Council Resolution 2334.
Groysman will be arriving in mid- May, a sign that ties with Ukraine have returned to normal, but Israel has not yet decided to return its ambassador to New Zealand and Senegal, two of the four countries that sponsored the resolution. (Israel does not have diplomatic ties with the other two sponsors, Venezuela and Malaysia.)
Diplomatic officials explain these moves as part of a more assertive diplomatic policy – that Israel expects friends to treat it the same way they treat their other friends, and that if they do not, then there will be a cost in terms of their relations with Jerusalem.
Netanyahu believes that Israel can demand that price, because its expertise is wanted in so many areas so important to the world right now.
While there are those who say that Netanyahu’s actions toward the EU, Ukraine, Senegal and New Zealand are empty gestures that mean nothing (the EU, for instance, did not change its settlement labeling policy), there are others who argue that it is important to try to change unacceptable patterns of behavior toward Israel that have evolved over the years.
For instance, when Gabriel visited the US in February, he did not – in an effort to get as wide a spectrum of opinions as possible, which he claimed was his reason for meeting Breaking the Silence – insist on meeting groups like Code Pink or the American Civil Liberties Union. When he visited the Palestinian Authority this week, he did not schedule a meeting with Palestinian civil society groups advocating real democracy there or greater accountability from PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Would New Zealand, a democratic ally, sponsor – not only support, but actually sponsor – a UN Security Council resolution against any other democratic friend, knowing full well that the government of that country is full-heartedly opposed? Would it hide its intention to do so during a visit by its foreign minister just weeks before? Probably not.
There is a sense in Jerusalem that when it comes to Israel, what is not tolerated elsewhere becomes acceptable. Netanyahu is trying to set a mark that says certain things are just not done. Period.
But won’t there be a price? Gabriel is no bit actor on the German political stage, and Germany is arguably Israel’s most important friend in Europe. Won’t this damage ties?
Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, as well as Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On, argued this week that it will, and that this is no way to treat the senior official of a very important country.
Michael Oren, the former ambassador to the US and now deputy minister for diplomacy, thinks otherwise, saying that he has long advocated drawing diplomatic redlines regarding behavior that is not acceptable.
But asked if Gabriel can then be expected to go to bat for Israel in a few months’ time when Israel will need to turn to Germany for support in some EU forum against a one-sided resolution or decision, Oren replied sarcastically, “Yes, they are doing such a good job. They have really done a great job standing up for us.”
Pressed whether this means that Israel does not feel it has much to lose with Germany, out of a sense that it is not doing that much anyhow, he replied, “The French just had a big peace conference about us. I mean, really.”
As to whether this message was directed only toward the Germans, Oren replied, “It is directed toward everybody. People respect when you stand up for yourself. We had a situation here which is anomalous, and not in accord with normal behavior between states, certainly not between allied democratic states.”
Does this all help Netanyahu politically? Obviously. Israelis, for the most part, do not like Breaking the Silence (a recent Channel 10 poll showed that 53% of the population thinks the group should be outlawed, while 22% are opposed and 23% not sure). And although Israelis have a much more positive view of Germany than they did some 20 years ago – largely because of Chancellor Angela Merkel – on the day after Holocaust Remembrance Day, if there is a spat with Germany, their sympathies are not going to be with Berlin.
But that does not mean that this move was choreographed by Netanyahu for the voters, especially since an election is not immediately in the offing. Gabriel walked into this situation in a ham-handed manner, not heeding Israel’s urging before he arrived that he take the meeting with Breaking the Silence off the schedule. Netanyahu then used this to display his more aggressive diplomatic approach, surely winning votes with his base in the process - but that was a side effect of the incident, not its primary cause.
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