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On Monday, Prime Minister Netanyahu gave German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel a disturbing ultimatum: Either FM Gabriel could meet with him or he could keep his meetings with Israeli human rights groups, B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence.
Yesterday, following FM Gabriel’s decision to meet with the Israeli NGOs, Prime Minister Netanyahu canceled the meeting. FM Gabriel had traveled to Israel to pay respects at Yad Vashem for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
As someone who has studied German-Israeli relations, I found this episode unsettling, to say the least. For decades, following the Federal Republic of Germany’s Holocaust reparations payments beginning in 1953 and the normalization of German-Israeli relations in 1965, Germany and Israel have enjoyed a special relationship, bound by shared security, economic and political interests. Germany has proved to be a blocking back for Israel within the EU, has subsidized German-manufactured submarines to sell to the Israeli navy, and has served as an interlocutor for prisoner exchanges.
But the relationship has become strained, in part, due to policy disagreements over the Iran deal and settlements, as well as a number of diplomatic snafus.
Back in 2008, when Angela Merkel became the first head of the German government to speak in front of the Knesset she noted the “special, unique relationship” between the two countries. In 2012, she called Israel’s security Germany’s Staatsräson (raison d’etre).
Much has changed in the just this past year. Chancellor Merkel cancelled their unique joint cabinet meetings (which began in 2008) because of her frustration with Israel’s recent settlement laws. A submarine deal has been delayed because of potential conflict of interest between Netanyahu and the German submarine manufacturer. And now the Prime Minister has cancelled a meeting with the German foreign minister to appease the far-right of his coalition.
To be sure, there are valid concerns about FM Gabriel’s scheduled meetings. As Noga Tarnopolsky has noted, a Foreign Minister’s job is not to provoke an ally. However, these groups are important. They are active monitors of human rights in the occupied territory and raise serious concerns about the threats the occupation poses for Israel’s future.
Israel’s response – the cancellation and ensuing tweetstorm from the official Prime Minister’s account – is reckless and troubling. Netanyahu completely ignores the fact that the German government not only has a vested interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but is the largest funder of the Palestinian Authority within the EU. That Netanyahu would sideline these critical issues for domestic political gain is concerning.
Netanyahu’s reaction also reflects a worrisome trend: He would rather take to Twitter like President Trump and dismiss dissent as traitorous than embrace an opportunity for dialogue and diplomacy. Moreover, his grandstanding towards Germany only deepens Israel’s international isolation and falsely reinforces the sentiment amongst some Israelis that the whole world is against them.
The German government is staunchly against settlement expansion and views Israel’s long-term security as contingent on achieving a two-state solution. Israel knows this. So, when Netanyahu cancels diplomatic meetings due to Germany’s desire to hear a wide array of perspectives on the conflict, I worry Israel is unnecessarily harming an alliance that is crucial for its standing in Europe and damaging relations with a partner that is able and willing to help advance peace.