Since becoming Germany’s foreign minister three months ago, Sigmar Gabriel, the former leader of the country’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), has shone. It’s as if he has been released from his last job, one in which opinion polls consistently slammed his ability to pull the SPD—in coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc—out of the doldrums.
Now, the former vice chancellor speaks his mind over Russia. He has embraced an EU that must stand up to populists. He has made his mark over NATO, arguing that Germany—and other alliance countries—having to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense is a questionable benchmark.
But it is Gabriel’s visit to Israel this week that showed a minister unwilling to be bullied by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
That’s something coming from Germany, which has never wavered in its support of Israel. Because of the Holocaust, which led to near destruction of European Jewry, the dynamic between the two countries is one of the most emotionally complex and important relationships in the EU.
This hasn’t stopped Merkel, for one, from speaking her mind to Netanyahu about how he is undermining any prospect for a viable two-state solution to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied territories. But the context of this week’s row between Germany and Israel is how Netanyahu’s right-wing government has taken an increasingly tough approach to local nongovernmental organizations.
Many are funded by EU member states or have a connection to European political foundations. The point is that the current Israeli government is highly sensitive to criticism from, and is suspicious of, NGOs.
Sensitivity and suspicion is one thing. Telling visiting foreign officials that they should not visit NGOs that are run by Israelis and that focus on the occupation and settlements is a redline. Yet that’s exactly what Netanyahu told Gabriel.
Gabriel himself is no stranger to Israel. He is well connected both in Germany and in Israel to the plethora of Israeli think tanks, organizations, politicians, and diplomats.
So, as part of his visit to Israel, Gabriel decided to talk to two local NGOs, Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem. The former has been meticulously documenting violations by the Israeli Defense Forces in the occupied Palestinian territories. The latter focuses on human rights violations there.
“The point about these NGOs is that they put a mirror in front of Israeli society. But Israeli society, by and large, doesn’t want to look in the mirror,” Shimon Stein, former Israeli ambassador to Germany told Carnegie Europe.
“Gabriel simply wanted to get the widest picture possible of the situation today in Israel. And it’s important that he aimed to do that,” one current Israeli diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Carnegie Europe.
Netanyahu was having none of it. The prime minister leaked what amounted to an ultimatum to the Israeli media. Instead of dealing directly with Gabriel, Netanyahu told local reporters that he would not meet Gabriel if the German foreign minister visited these two NGOs.
Undeterred, Gabriel went ahead and met with them. “You never get the full picture of any state in the world if you just meet with figures in government ministries,” Gabriel told German public TV network ZDF.
Netanyahu’s ultimatum was inconsistent. He didn’t issue any such warning when then German president Joachim Gauck met with NGOs in Israel. And the ultimatum wasn’t taken up by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, no walking left-winger, who warmly welcomed Gabriel this week.
But more damaging to Israel is how easy it would be to equate Netanyahu’s perception of NGOs—and his treatment of prominent foreign officials who visit them—with how Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán views such organizations. All three want to muzzle independent voices.
Even if Netanyahu snubbed Gabriel for short-term domestic considerations to please his right-wing supporters, such a move was shortsighted—and stupid. More than ever, Israel needs friends in Europe, especially in Germany.