Last Monday was Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel. It is a quiet, painful, introspective day, on which even highway traffic comes to a complete halt for two minutes. In his address opening the commemoration, a somewhat belligerent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu berated Europe for not doing enough to stem anti-Semitism. Then the next day, in an apparent breach of diplomatic protocol, Netanyahu snubbed Germany’s foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, by canceling a scheduled meeting. What for? The German envoy had ignored Netanyahu’s demand that he cancel a meeting with Break the Silence, a group deeply critical of the Israeli army’s conduct in Palestinian territories.
Many people wondered why the prime minster chose to pick this fight with Germany. To be sure, his cabinet supported his decision, and he knew that he would earn points with his right flank, on which the future of his government depends. Breaking the Silence, an Israeli grass-roots organization, collects testimonies from soldiers about their military service, mostly in the territories, focusing particularly on alleged abuses by soldiers. The group is seen by many as irresponsible and treasonous. Many of the testimonies it publishes are uncorroborated; some critics say they are false. And because most of Breaking the Silence’s work is done outside Israel, they are seen as trying to sully the Israel Defense Forces in international settings, contributing to the possibility that Israeli soldiers could eventually be charged in the International Court of Justice. Particularly galling to Netanyahu is that most of the group’s funding comes from Europe, which he considers fundamentally hostile to Israel.
Michael Oren, a member of Knesset who was formerly Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., articulated Netanyahu’s position better than even the prime minister: “It’s unacceptable for European leaders to come here to help those who degrade our soldiers as war criminals, and that’s what Breaking the Silence does,” said Oren. Even some Europeans are now questioning the propriety of their support. In 2015, 10 members of the Swiss Parliament chastised their government for funding the group. “Disinformation and the political ideology of hatred are being directed against the Jewish state,” they said, adding with irony that “it is shameful that Switzerland, on whose soil the nucleus of peaceful political Zionism developed in Basel, is participating in such activities.”
Netanyahu’s snub of the German envoy, therefore, was a safe domestic bet. But was there any diplomatic gain to be had? While Gabriel insisted that the episode would not harm Germany’s “special relationship with Israel,” Chancellor Angela Merkel hinted that matters were a bit more complex than that. “The chancellor finds it regrettable that a meeting” did not take place, her spokesman, said. “It should not be problematic for foreign visitors to meet with critical representatives of civil society.”
That statement, while an oversimplification, may have been key to Netanyahu’s rage. Gabriel defended his position by saying, “You never get the full picture of any state in the world if you just meet with figures in government ministries,” but even Ha’aretz, Israel’s left-leaning daily, which rarely misses an opportunity to attack the prime minister, noted that foreign ministers generally do not meet with representative of NGOs in democratic countries. Was the visit an inadvertent indication that Israel is not a functioning democracy?
Netanyahu obviously values Israel’s relationship with Germany, which is Israel’s largest trading partner in Europe, and with which Israel enjoys significant military cooperation. But the prime minister has decided not to ignore what he sees as baseless attacks on Israel or Jews. When Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom accused Israel of extrajudicial killings of Palestinians in 2015, he called her remarks “outrageous, immoral, unjust and just wrong.” He then added “stupid.” When French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen said recently that France was not responsible for the killing of Jews under Nazi rule, Netanyahu’s government minced no words and described her comments as “contradicting historical truth.” (Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, Marine Le Pen’s just announced pick for prime minister, is a harsh critic of Israel who has compared Netanyahu to Hamas.) When U.S. President Donald Trump recently condemned anti-Semitism, Netanyahu used Trump’s remarks as an opportunity to challenge Europe to do the same.
It is in that context that Netanyahu’s snub must be seen. The dust-up with Germany was surely not his most elegant moment. Yet Gabriel made a series of probably unintentional gaffes. Around Holocaust Memorial Day, Israelis’ sensitivities about Germany are at their height. So is their fear of weakness. In his speech that day, Netanyahu reminded his country, “The simple truth is that in our world, the existence of the weak is in doubt. … The strong survive, the weak are erased.”
Most Israelis are keenly aware that without the IDF, they would not survive. Of all weeks of the year, this was certainly not the moment for a German to come to Israel to meet with an organization that most Israelis believe wants to make Jews vulnerable once again.