On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adopted a new strategy for managing Israel’s diplomatic relations with the West. Long in the making and increasingly urgent, Israel’s new strategy is very simple. Foreign governments can either treat Israel in accordance with international diplomatic norms of behavior, or they can continue to discriminate against Israel.
If they act in accordance with international diplomatic norms, Israel will respond in a like fashion. If they choose instead to discriminate against Israel and treat it in a manner no other democratic state is treated, Israel will abandon diplomatic convention and treat foreign governments as domestic critics.
On Monday, after his repeated requests for Germany’s visiting Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel to cancel his plans to meet with Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, Netanyahu gave Gabriel an ultimatum. Gabriel could meet with Netanyahu, or he could meet with them.
Gabriel refused to cancel his meeting with Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem. So Netanyahu canceled their meeting.
To understand the strategic significance of Netanyahu’s decision and what further steps are now required to ensure the success of his strategy, it is necessary to understand what both groups together, and Breaking the Silence in particular represent. It is then important to recognize how they are used by Berlin and other foreign governments.
But first, Netanyahu’s move has to be seen in a general context.
Today’s Western democracies are in a furor over the notion that foreign governments would dare to interfere in their domestic affairs. The uproar in the US over Russia and in Europe over Turkish efforts to drum up support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan among Turkish nationals in Europe make clear how roundly democracies decry attempts by foreign governments to influence their internal politics.
This then brings us to Israel, and the unique rules that the West applies in its dealing with the Jewish state.
In the final quarter of the 20th century, European and other Western states abandoned their earlier support for Israel. From 1974 on, Europeans could be depended on to either support condemnations of Israel at the UN and other international forums, or to abstain from votes.
Whereas from 1974 to 2000, European hostility was largely limited to the diplomatic arena, beginning in 2000, the Europeans began to expand their anti-Israel policies to the Israeli domestic political sphere.
After the PLO abandoned the peace process with Israel at the July 2000 Camp David summit and initiated its terrorist war against Israel two months later, the Europeans began massively funding radical leftist groups registered as NGOs in Israel. The collapse of the peace process and the initiation of the Palestinian terrorist war all but dried up domestic support for groups like Peace Now, B’Tselem and Rabbis for Human Rights. But with millions of euros in their pockets and the unconditional diplomatic support of Europe, these groups were able to become players in Israel’s domestic politics and cause massive harm to Israel’s international standing.
As for the Europeans, their Israeli contractors gave them the ability to fend off allegations that they were anti-Semites engaged in systematic and prejudicial discrimination against the Jewish state.
Every time Israeli officials and others protested about their unfair treatment of Israel, the Europeans responded that they were simply restating allegations made by Israelis.
The fact that the Israelis they quoted were only able to speak because Europe paid for their microphones was entirely beside the point, as was the fact that those Israelis reflected the views of next to no one in Israel.
In the face of this assault – fronted by Israel-registered organizations staffed by Israelis, for the past 17 years, official Israel has been paralyzed. First it didn’t know how to respond. And second, when it responded, it was beset with the prospect of Europe retaliating by backing its political war against Israel with economic warfare.
As a result, time after time, Israel buckled to European pressure. Consequently, it saw its international status undermined and its very right to sovereignty questioned.
The most significant example of that buckling came in 2006, when then-prime commerce and industry minister Ehud Olmert agreed to transfer Israel’s postal codes to the EU and so enabled the Europeans to discriminate against Israeli products made beyond the 1949 armistice lines.
In another example, in 2013, then-minister Bennie Begin convinced the government to bow to European pressure – exerted through its Israel-registered nonprofits – to legalize Beduin settlements in the Negev built on stolen state land.
In both instances, far from placating the Europeans and their Israeli contractors, these actions convinced them to escalate their pressure against Israel and to adopt ever more prejudicial positions against the Jewish state.
The playing field between Israel and Europe has shifted in recent years. Today, the EU is fighting for its life. Donald Trump’s victory in November, Britain’s decision to exit the EU, and the growing power of anti-EU forces in Europe have all had a debilitating impact on Brussels’ ability to throw its weight around in the global arena.
Moreover, over the past several years, the government has actively promoted expanding Israeli trade to Asia. One motivation for the policy is the desire to diminish Europe’s economic leverage over Israel.
The diminishment of Europe’s power advantage over Israel set the conditions for Netanyahu’s adoption of his strategy for dealing with Europe’s war against it.
And just in a nick of time. Because as Europe becomes less powerful, Europe’s policies toward Israel become more toxic.
And this brings us to the nature of Breaking the Silence.
Breaking the Silence, which was formed in 2002, is a group dedicated to libeling the IDF and its soldiers and officers by constantly accusing them of carrying out war crimes. Since its inception, Breaking the Silence’s budget has come almost entirely from European governments. Germany is a major backer.
Germany’s interest in Breaking the Silence is understandable. As polls taken between 2011 and 2015 showed, between a third and half of Germans view Israel as the moral equivalent of Nazi Germany. The Palestinians, by their telling, are the new Jews.
Likewise, a large majority of Germans is sick of hearing about the Holocaust. And an even larger majority says that Israel is behaving unjustly toward the Palestinians.
Breaking the Silence’s work not only legitimizes these views, shielding them from condemnation as indications of the growing virulence of German Jew-hatred. It also, to a degree, justifies the Holocaust. After all, if the Jews are as evil as the Nazis, then they are illegitimate actors who deserve to be defeated.
Europe’s rapidly escalating campaign against Israel can be seen through its rapidly escalating embrace of these groups.
According to senior Foreign Ministry officials, until very recently, European governments conducted their meetings with these organizations in private, far from the glare of television cameras.
This changed in February. During his visit to Israel, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel shocked Netanyahu when in defiance of Netanyahu’s request, he personally met with Breaking the Silence during his official visit to Israel.
Last month, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson went even further.
Johnson, who has a reputation for being a friend to Israel, surprised Netanyahu and his advisers when, during their meeting he all but refused to discuss anything but Israeli construction beyond the 1949 armistice lines.
Ahead of his meeting with Netanyahu, Johnson traveled to Judea with Peace Now and got himself photographed looking gravely at a map held by a Peace Now leader who pointed to where Jews were building in the area around metropolitan Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim.
When Johnson was asked by reporters why he wasn’t meeting as well with representatives of the Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria, he scoffed. Netanyahu will give the other side of the story, he insisted.
In other words, for Johnson, Netanyahu was expected to answer the allegations launched against his government by a European-funded NGO. Johnson treated Peace Now as a more credible source of information than the government.
During his visit, Peace Now served as a general prosecutor of Israel. Johnson treated Netanyahu as the defendant. And he, whose government funds Peace Now, served as judge and jury.
Gabriel’s decision to opt for a meeting with Breaking the Silence over a meeting with Netanyahu took matters one step forward. In acting as he did, Gabriel showed that as he sees things, Israel’s elected leader is less legitimate than representatives of an organization that legitimizes German antisemitism.
By refusing to meet with Gabriel, Netanyahu made clear that new rules will now apply to Europe and other Western governments that have joined Europe’s campaign against Israel. But his move – while important – is not enough.
To ensure that his strategy of demanding that Europe treat Israel in a manner that accords with diplomatic norms, Netanyahu needs to take additional steps. Like his decision to deny Gabriel diplomatic cover for his meeting with anti-Israel groups, Netanyahu needs to deny Western governments diplomatic immunity for their other actions aimed at undermining the government’s capacity to carry out its domestic duties.
For instance, one of the major ways that European-funded groups subvert the government is by suing the government in local courts. The government must require the foreign governments that fund these groups to appear as sides in the court battles. In this manner, the government can ask the courts to compel these foreign governments to hand over documents relevant to the cases being adjudicated.
So, too, the government should require foreign government-funded groups to submit all communications between their representatives and those governments, and all internal documents of foreign governmental funders relating to their decision to fund the Israelregistered group. Given that the goal of the funding is to interfere with domestic Israeli affairs, those communications should not enjoy diplomatic immunity.
The penalty for failing to present all the required documents will be the imposition of a 100% tax on the foreign government contributions to the Israel-registered nonprofit.
Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of Netanyahu’s diplomatic gambit this week is that opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog refused to support him. Instead, Herzog sided with Gabriel. He insisted that Netanyahu harmed Israel’s relations with Germany by demanding to be treated in a manner that comports with international norms.
For decades, the political Left has claimed that it can manage Israel’s diplomatic ties better than the Right, which it castigates as inept, incompetent and dangerous to Israel’s international standing. By failing to recognize why Netanyahu’s move was vital for Israel’s international standing, or to understand that international conditions have changed sufficiently to allow Israel to stand up for itself, Herzog and his colleagues showed that their boastful claims to diplomatic capabilities are empty.
Netanyahu took a necessary first step toward implementing a constructive strategy for handling Western diplomatic warfare. More steps are still required for this strategy to succeed. But at least, for the first time in years, Israel is finally taking a constructive position in its own defense.