Think About It: Why Netanyahu’s refusal to meet the German FM was wrong

If anyone is occasionally in breach of the diplomatic code, it is Netanyahu.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel visits the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem on April 24, 2017 (photo credit: AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON)
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel visits the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem on April 24, 2017
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON)
There are four main arguments made by those who defend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to refuse to meet German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel after the latter had refused to cancel a meeting with human rights organizations Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem. They are: that a stop must be put to European intervention in Israel’s internal affairs; that the human rights organizations in question are “enemies of the state”; that for a foreign diplomat to meet with individuals and organizations that are anathema to the government is contrary to the rules of acceptable diplomacy; and antisemitism.
Those who consider Netanyahu’s reaction to be an act of folly have clear and forceful answers to all these arguments.
First of all, Israeli activities with regard to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including its breach of the basic human rights of their Palestinian inhabitants, and its occasional breach of the international laws of war in confronting them, do not constitute “internal affairs.”
Since the Six Day War all foreign states – including Israel’s staunchest allies and friends – consider Israel’s status in all the territories occupied by it during the 1967 war to be one of foreign occupier. Furthermore, all but the 13 foreign states that established their embassies in Jerusalem don’t even recognize west Jerusalem to be part of the sovereign State of Israel. All 13 that did maintain embassies in Jerusalem (including only one European state – the Netherlands), moved them to Tel Aviv in 1980, after the passage of Basic Law: Jerusalem the Capital of Israel.
All of Israel’s efforts to convince the international community to change its position on these issues failed, and consequently most of Israel’s efforts over the years were directed at preserving the status quo without causing too much commotion, and trying to fend off pressure to change its position.
Incidentally, the Labor Party’s approach on how to manage inconvenient positions on the part of foreign states and parties by diplomatic means has always been to encourage the latter to hear, first hand, as many different positions as possible to try to replace negative exclamation marks with more neutral question marks. In the late 1980s and early 1990s I frequently accompanied high-ranking foreign guests of the Labor Party to meetings organized for them with representatives of all the various ideological points of view in Israel.
I recall that sometime during that period I accompanied a young member of the German SPD (I believe it was no other than Martin Schultz, who will be contesting Chancellor Angela Merkel in the next German general elections) to a meeting with MK Elyakim Haetzni (HaTehiya Party) in Kiryat Arba. Their hour-long conversation was held in German (Haetzni’s mother tongue), and the guest was fascinated.
Needless to say, the Labor Party considered Haetzni’s views totally anathema, and yet it encouraged its guest to meet with him. Why couldn’t the Israeli Foreign Ministry have encouraged Gabriel to meet with the human rights organizations, with Netanyahu then being able to explain more forcefully the government’s reservations regarding them, without creating a harmful diplomatic incident?
As to Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, no matter how objectionable some of their strategies and tactics may be, it is of the utmost importance that someone from within Israeli society should go to the trouble of uncovering violations of human rights and the laws of warfare by the Israeli authorities outside the sovereign territory of Israel, and force the state to address these violations. If the only way to do this is by making the facts public, so be it.
If it could be proven that the information published by these two organizations is fabricated, this would certainly justify their being not only ostracized, but even outlawed. But that is not the case, and the current government’s policy vis-à-vis these organizations simply puts it in the same category as states notorious for violating human rights, even though unlike these other states Israel prides itself on being “the only democracy in the Middle East,” and the IDF being “the most moral army in the world.”
As to the argument that European diplomats are in breach of the diplomatic code of conduct when they insist on meeting with representatives of Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, though there is certainly lack of clarity regarding where exactly the border lies between what is OK and what is not, meeting human rights activists is viewed by Western democracies as acceptable. Since the facts that these two Israeli human rights organization reveal are almost always accurate, despite the objectionability of drawing generalizations from them (e.g. that all Israeli soldiers are war criminals) condemning such meetings as being in breach of the diplomatic code is groundless.
However, as the saying goes, “if you live in a glass house, don’t throw stones.” If anyone is occasionally in breach of the diplomatic code, it is Netanyahu. For example Netanyahu crassly intervened in American internal affairs when he appeared before the US Congress to attack the Iran policy of the Obama administration. And what would Netanyahu have said had President Obama conditioned his meetings with him on Netanyahu’s not meeting with personalities who finance his political rivals (especially if they also happen to finance Netanyahu himself)?
As to accusing those who meet with Israeli human rights organizations of being motivated by antisemitism – it is time that a clear separation be made between legitimate criticism of Israeli policies in the territories, and antisemitism. Accusing people who believe that Israel is bound by the same international law and universal principles of human rights as any other democratic country of antisemitism is both outrageous and counterproductive.