Does Netanyahu's new leftist litmus test waste diplomatic capital?

Netanyahu’s decision to open up this battle front could be seen as one more push toward a “my way or the highway” autocratic leadership type.

Netanyahu and Gabriel  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Gabriel
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu always seems to need a diplomatic foe.
Gone is the eight-year novella with former US President Barack Obama, so time is ripe to open a new drama series with some European governments, starting of course, with Israel’s strongest European ally, Germany
First, German Chancellor Angela Merkel canceled her May visit to Israel in February to protest accelerated Israeli settlement activity.
Then Netanyahu on Tuesday nixed his meeting with German Foreign Ministry Sigmar Gabriel. The issue was not Iran, or West Bank settlements, but a small fringe left-wing Israeli NGO called Breaking the Silence.
Netanyahu snubs German minister over plan to meet far - left groups like Breaking the Silence (credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu demanded that Gabriel cancel his meeting with the group and set a new litmus test for visiting dignitaries, all of whom will have to refuse to meet with Breaking the Silence of they want an audience with Netanyahu.
The fact that Gabriel arrived in Israel on Holocaust Memorial Day heightened the drama between two head-strong politicians willing to throw diplomatic caution to the wind.
Gabriel is as identified with the Left as Netanyahu is with the Right. Although he only became Foreign Minister in January, he has held other top-level posts and is no stranger to Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians.
In the past, Gabriel has spoken of Israel as an “apartheid” state, visited Hebron and has advocated that Hamas should be part of the peace process.
Germany is heading to elections and a strong democratic stance in Israel could be helpful to Gabriel’s party. In addition, Germany heavily funds Israeli non-governmental groups, including Breaking the Silence.
In defending the diplomatic flap with Germany, Netanyahu cited diplomatic protocol. “Imagine if foreign diplomats visiting the United States or Britain met with NGOs that call American or British soldiers war criminals," he said.
It’s a strange argument for Netanyahu to make. Just two years ago, he accepted a Republican invitation to address a joint session of the US Congress so that he could urge American politicians to vote against the Iran deal, one of the cornerstones of Obama's foreign policy in the Middle East.
At the time, Netanyahu argued that protocol was not relevant because he was on a mission to halt the existential threat the deal posed to Israel, because it would enable a nuclear Iran. Similarly here, he out of concern for security, placing that argument above democracy.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely minced no words on Wednesday when she went one step further and referred to Breaking the Silence as Israel’s “enemy.”
Can that argument justify Netanyahu taking such a startling risk with foreign policy over a group of former IDF veterans who collect information against IDF activities in the West Bank and Gaza?
The reports Breaking the Silence has published have become part of the international diplomatic warfare against Israel, including the Palestinian drive to bring Israelis before the International Criminal Court. But they are only one element of the initiative, which would move forward regardless of their efforts.
Netanyahu has shaken hands with heads of state whom one could argue have done more damage to Israel then Breaking the Silence.
Such governments, like China and India for example, have persistently voted against Israel at the United Nations and in favor of the Palestinians. This includes Chinese and Indian support for the November 2012 United Nations General Assembly resolution, which granted the Palestinians the status of “non-member observer state.” It was this vote that made it possible for the Palestinians to turn to the ICC, and without that vote, the work of Breaking the Silence would have less impact.
Yet Netanyahu traveled to China this year with much fanfare and plans to warmly welcome Indian Prime Minister Narendara Modi when he makes the first visit this summer as Indian head of state.
Germany abstained from that UN vote. Out of the European countries, Germany is among Israel’s stronger supporters at the UN. Just last year, it voted against the UNESCO resolution to ignore Jewish ties to the Temple Mount.
Democracies are measured by the extent to which they will tolerate civic dissent, particularly views that oppose the government line or uncover abusive behavior by security forces.
Netanyahu’s new policy would seem to run counter to one of the points Israel is most proud of; that it is the sole democracy in the Middle East.
There is even an argument to made that Breaking the Silence, by uncovering alleged IDF human rights abuses, is helping to hold the Israeli army to a standard it itself holds dear - that it is a moral fighting force.
Netanyahu’s decision to open up this battle front could be seen as one more push toward a “my way or the highway” autocratic leadership type.
It could be seen as part of his pattern of overly elevating people and groups he considers hostile to enemy status.
Or it could be that in a time of war, when Israel is fighting an intense delegitimization battle, Netanyahu truly views such groups as existential threats because they are the civic bullets used by the country’s opponents.
Not at the level of Iran, of course, but enough that Netanyahu is willing to draw a line in the sand by focusing on one group.
A number of European governments are unlikely to comply with Netanyahu’s new demand. Partially because they value democracy, and civic society meetings are important parts of their trips here.
European nations fund groups like Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, who battle for Israel’s withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines, because they see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an existential threat to the region.
It is their belief that the conflict fosters radicalism and extremism.
This diplomatic game is likely to dominate a number of future European visits, even though the Austrian Chancellor visited Israel this week, seamlessly meeting with Israelis and Palestinians, without raising even an eyebrow.
Or worse, it could sway dignitaries not to come so they could avoid conflict with Netanyahu. For a prime minister who seeks to show his international popularity and Israel’s lack of isolation, this is hardly a wise choice.
Most significantly, however, Netanyahu is about to anger European governments just as Israel is heading into at least two significant UN battles this year.
The first is at UNESCO next month, whose Executive Board next week is set to approve a resolution denying Israeli sovereignty anywhere in Jerusalem.
The second is at the UN Human Rights Council, which is set to publish later this year a black list of companies that do business with Israelis over the pre-1967 lines, including east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
In a universe where Israel needs all its diplomatic capital, it is hard to argue for the diplomatic gain of such a disproportionate focus on one small NGO.