Left-wing organizations like Breaking the Silence have been controversial in Israel practically since the beginning of their existence. But this past week, they once again became the center of our attention when Germany’s Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, scheduled meetings with the left-wing organization. This resulted in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presenting Gabriel with an ultimatum: either he cancel his meetings with BTS or Netanyahu will cancel his meeting with Gabriel. With Gabriel unwilling to change his plans, his meeting with Netanyahu never occurred.
These recent events are not just random outbursts but a manifestation of a serious challenge facing the current Israeli government. While the current leadership undoubtedly despises these left wing organizations, a choice lies before them: the government could ignore them, could allow them to continue their work and not give them any extra attention, thereby marginalizing them. Or they could continue regularly lashing out at them and trying to aggressively silence them. But in doing so, they also give them more attention and make it seem more and more like Israel isn’t in the business of working on its flaws. Often, Israel has been able to go about this with relatively few repercussions. But in this most recent case, Netanyahu chose the second approach, resulting in damage to Israel’s relationship with Germany and possibly negatively impacting the support Israel has received from Chancellor Angela Merkel up until now.
We must remember that for Netanyahu, the question last week shouldn’t have been whether or not he agrees with or supports the work of these left wing organizations, but rather what approach is in the best interest of Israel. Instead of weighing the pros and cons of each approach and choosing the logical course of action, it seems that he reacted in an irresponsible manor. Netanyahu was clearly shooting from the hip, taking a page out of Trump’s book. And that is why at first glance it may look like he made a bold move that shows Israel’s strength and ability to stand up for itself. But the more obvious conclusion is that his reaction was reckless and unproductive.
It was reckless because it risked Israel’s foreign relations with Germany. While Netanyahu’s supporters claim that the German Foreign Minister should have simply canceled his meetings with the groups, in no way was that the expected outcome of Netanyahu’s harsh response. Firstly, because it wouldn’t have looked good to Gabriel’s constituency, and secondly, because to Gabriel, it wouldn’t seem right to cancel his meetings with the “small harmless human rights groups” because of the demands of the “big bad government.” Netanyahu’s response was also unproductive in broadcasting the message he wanted; instead of coming off as a strong and tolerant country that is capable of containing the groups that critique it, Israel came across looking like a paranoid and unbalanced country that is scared of constructive criticism.
As for these groups themselves, I believe their situation is more complicated than often assumed. While it’s easy to simply say “they are just human rights organizations” or “they are enemies of Israel”, neither of these descriptions are fully accurate. If groups like Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem want to have a positive impact on Israel, they must change their approach and focus inwards on Israeli society. By doing so, they can attempt to prove their legitimacy and try to show that they indeed have Israel’s best interests at heart. Their current efforts to broadcast Israel’s problems abroad are harming Israel and limiting its chances of prospering. As for the current Israeli policy on this issue, there is unlikely a better alternative for Israel than ignoring these groups. All other measures simply make them look like victims and give them more ammunition to use against the state of Israel.
Netanyahu’s failure wasn’t that he doesn’t support these groups, but rather that he broadcasted to the world that anyone who supports Israel, while not fully agreeing with all its policies or everything it does, is not welcome and is not valued. This combination of reckless leadership and organizations acting in harmful ways is a dangerous recipe that could lead to the international isolation of the State of Israel.