Monitoring Report May 2017
Germany visits friends - About Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel’s visit to Israel
A turbulent time in German-Israeli relationships is currently playing out before our eyes. And it is once again the double-standard that is continuously imposed upon Israel that is the cause of the turbulence. The current tension between the two allies is a result of the cancellation of a meeting planned between Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of Israel’s government and Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s Foreign Minister. The meeting was cancelled by Benjamin Netanyahu himself, which caused great consternation in the German political scene and in the media. In order to understand why he made the decision to put the highest diplomat of one of his closest allies in his place so publically, one has to view the situation in a broader context.
Tensions in the relationship
On December 23, 2016, the UN-Security Council passed Resolution 2334, which declared settlements in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem to be illegal according to international law. By abstaining from the vote, the USA allowed the Counsel to pass this strongly Israel-critical resolution – in essence approving it. Thus, in its last days in power, the Obama Administration again released a diplomatic inferno over Israel. In Israel, the resolution was thoroughly rejected by all parties of all colors. Benjamin Netanyahu described it as an “historic mistake”.
A month later, at the Peace Conference in Paris, Germany, represented by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Foreign Minister at the time, identified itself with the International Community and in essence gave full support to Resolution 2334 by signing the final protocol of the summit. Then, in February 2017, the German Government cancelled the annual Government Consultation Meetings planned for May because of “scheduling difficulties”. Behind the scenes, the stubborn rumor prevailed that the cancellation was really due to the German rejection of Israel’s settlement policy.
It was against this background that the visit of the German Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, took place. It was also his first visit since taking office. His job, as Germany’s highest ranking diplomat, was actually to smooth ruffled feathers during his visit and lay the foundation for good future working relations with Israel.
„An envoy – but unskilled“
Prior to official State visits there is normally a detailed coordination of the schedule with the host country – that definitively applies to visits of high government officials. Sigmar Gabriel wanted to meet with so-called NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) – Israel sent the German Foreign Ministry six suggestions, form organizations critical of the Israeli government to organizations close to the government. According to media reports (LINK), the German Ambassador to Israel, Clemens von Götze, brusquely rejected those suggestions. They were not about to be influenced in their choice of who to meet with by a foreign government. After the scandal erupted, Sigmar Gabriel used this line of argumentation in his interview with the ZDF Morgenmagazin as well. The NGOs that Sigmar Gabriel and the Foreign Ministry deemed fitting partners to meet with were B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence. In an article in the MENA Watch by Alex Feuerherdt – an article well worth reading – the author writes about the dark side of these organizations in great detail. To summarize briefly, these are two ultra-left “Israeli” NGOs which are leading voices in the choir of Anti-Israel-Organizations. Financed by international sponsors, foreign governments, the European Union, the political foundation Misereor, Bread for the World, etc., they research Israel’s alleged human rights violations and publish them in reports. These in turn are a favored source quoted by western nations to justify their anti-Israel resolutions, statements and attitudes by quoting from an “Israeli” source. To put it bluntly, these organizations are agents, paid by the west, with a mandate to professionally slander Israel under the guise of human rights.
In the most astute and sharp terms, the Israeli journalist, Dror Ben Yemini says about this theme in Cicero: „These organizations are not peace activists. They spread hate. There is a great demand worldwide for this content. And there are people, who are prepared to pay for it – including Germany. […] in the framework of this project of aggravation, the European Union and the States of Europe, including Germany are actively supporting organizations belonging to the BDS campaign, those which provide justification for Palestinian terror and those which are part of the propaganda machinery questioning Israel’s right to exist and portraying the Land as a monster. In the past, Germany demonized the Jews. The Europe of today, and that includes Germany, finances organizations which demonize the Jewish State. There is no Anti-Semitic intention behind all this. Just the contrary. It is based on the hope of peace in the Middle East. But most of the organizations which enjoy the financial support are against – expressly against! – the solution of two States for two Peoples. The financing is not bringing us closer to peace. And there is truly no necessity for Israel to have to turn the second cheek as well.”
Benjamin Netanyahu saw it the same way. He made it very clear to the Foreign Ministry that a meeting with Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem was a clear red line for him. As his office later stated: “it is not the policy of the Prime Minister to meet with visitors traveling in Israel on diplomatic business who meet with groups that slanderously accuse soldiers serving in the Israeli Defense Forces as being war criminals.“
The office of the Prime Minister made it clear to the Germans that he would cancel his meeting with the German Foreign Minister if Gabriel met with one of these two groups.
Gabriel stuck to the line that his Ambassador hat previously represented, did not accept the recommendations of the Israeli government and purposely crossed the red line. Because of that, Netanyahu cancelled the meeting with him. The newspaper Haaretz, which could certainly not be accused of being pro-government, reported that Benjamin Netanyahu tried to personally call Gabriel to explain his reasons for cancelling. Gabriel would not accept his call. This fact was neither confirmed nor denied by Volker Beck of the German Parliament.
A scandal perpetrated on purpose?
The German and the Israeli media are going back and forth on this. Everyone is talking about a scandal, but the question of who is at fault is interpreted differently. As was to be expected, Gabriel got support from some left-oriented media, primarily the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, which reported in the most derogatory fashion by far. Peter Münch titled his Article “Vladimir, Tayyip, Netanyahu”. But neither Netanyahu nor his country – even though the German Foreign Ministry might treat him that way – can be categorized in the same league. Meetings with NGOs against the will of the host nation are only on the agenda in autocratic, dictatorial countries (and are fully justified in such cases). To treat the democratic State of Israel in the same way is a diplomatic insult of epic scale.
And yet the news publications „Der Spiegel“ and „Taz“ strengthened Gabriel’s position as well. On the other hand, Alan Posener of „der Welt“, Alexander Will of the regional paper “NWZ” and Dror Ben Yemini of “Cicero” were critical of the Foreign Minister ‘s actions.
Bilateral relationship in the election campaign
From the political standpoint, the step makes a lot of sense for Sigmar Gabriel. His party, the SPD, is clearly orienting itself toward a R2G coalition (red-red-green), and an attitude critical of Israel is an asset in that arena. In addition, he has the recently published Anti-Semitism Report by the Expert Commission of the German Parliament which shows that about 40% of the German population harbors strong Israel-critical, up to Anti-Semitic attitudes. Is that the new voter potential that needs to be played to? A prankster with evil thoughts.
Both in Israel and in Germany, one came to the conclusion that Sigmar Gabriel acted the way he did out of internal political, election campaign motivations. Why Thomas De Maiziere and Dr. Angela Merkel gave public support to the SPD-man remains a mystery that the author of these lines could not fathom. The CDU does not seem to be of one mind about the situation either. In contrast to the Chancellor and her Interior Minister, MdB Gitta Connemann and MdB Klaus Brähmig took another, more critical position while still trying to smooth things over. Ms. Connemann wished that Gabriel had “shown more sensitivity”, Mr. Brähmig made a clear statement in a Facebook-Post.
But, for the most part, the colleague principle seems to be holding. State Secretary Michael Roth (SPD) of the Foreign Ministry confirms that the German Government has intensively examined the Foreign Ministers visit to Israel in retrospect and even went so far as to say in Parliament: “The Government is grateful for this trip because it confirms our great interest in peace, stability and democracy in the region.” – No word of self-criticism. That this swashbuckling and audacious behavior by Germany’s top diplomat , which basically forced the head of the Israeli Government to take this negative stand against his visit, should take place just one day before the Israeli Holocaust memorial day, Yom Ha Shoah, and just a few days before Yom Hazikaron, the Israeli holiday commemorating Israel’s fallen soldiers, is simply unbelievable. In an exclusive interview with the German “Bild-Zeitung”, Benjamin Netanyahu described Gabriel’s actions as “lacking all instinct”.
Perceived sense of Germany’s moral superiority and undesired peace mediation
Nowhere else in the world is the German maxim, "The essence of Germany is healing for the world“, less valid than in Israel. In strong and succinct words, Jan Fleischhauer explains why Germany should be subtle and humble in its approach to Israel and in no way try to play the role of the big peacemaker.
The German double-standard imposed upon Israel is shocking. While intervening as a government at home in meetings of Turkish Ministers in Germany (and rightly so), Israel is not allowed the same freedom to limit or even cancel meetings of high ranking politicians from other nations which work against its interests in its own country. Instead, one gets all excited when Israel reacts far less radically. After all, Gabriel’s meetings were not hindered (as was the case with Turkish politicians in Germany), but merely his meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu was cancelled as a consequence of his own actions.
One smugly puts oneself in the position of a defender of the democratic society in Israel while at the same time directly, as well as indirectly via the EU and semi-State players, supporting organizations that drive the demonization of Israel - thus undermining the natural fabric and security of Israeli society. That is all happening in clear contradiction to Germany’s declared intention to stand for the peace, the right of existence and the security of Israel. Netanyahu pointed out this contradictory behavior publically and very clearly nailed it to the wall for the entire world to see. But instead of being ashamed, taking correction and changing its politics to return to an acceptable moral foundation, Germany has gone on the offensive and stands firmly on its false standpoint. That is more than unfortunate!
The argument, that it is standard procedure to meet with groups standing in opposition to civil society, is also only applied to Israel. It is not normal or acceptable with western allies, not in Riad, Teheran, Amman or Ramallah. And Sigmar Gabriel knows that full well from his time as Secretary of Commerce!
Hope remains, that Sigmar Gabriel’s predecessor and current German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, will show a bit more diplomatic skill in his up-coming visit to Israel and that he will have the wisdom and insight to repair the strained relationships and not dig the ditches even deeper.