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Netanyahu looks like a bully, but he doesn't care

Any blowback Netanyahu receives after snubbing the German foreign minister will be short-lived: his base is behind him, he has the patronage of the U.S., and the status quo will remain exactly as it is.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking in the Knesset, April 5, 2017. (Hadas Parush/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking in the Knesset, April 5, 2017. (Hadas Parush/FLASH90)

This week Netanyahu gave the world another lesson in how authoritarianism disguised as democracy works. Upon learning that the visiting German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, refused to accede to his demand that he cancel his meetings with two NGOs that document human rights violations in territories controlled by Israel, the Israeli prime minister went ahead and canceled their own scheduled meeting as a punitive measure. Haaretz, Israel’s lone liberal newspaper, rightly disapproves. But the rest of the Israeli media is pretty much on board with Netanyahu.

The two NGOs are Breaking the Silence, which is composed of veteran Israeli combat soldiers who document abuses carried out by the army; and B’Tselem, which documents and raises awareness of human rights violations, while lobbying the Israeli government to implement international law in the territories.

Netanyahu and his ministers have for years targeted these organizations, portraying them as traitors and describing them to their base as effete Ashkenazi elitists who would rather curry favor with their European (read: anti-Israel) sponsors than be patriotic Israeli citizens.

The prime minister and Naftali Bennett, chairman of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home Party and the current minister of education, have particularly focused on Breaking the Silence, repeating the claim that it slanders Israeli soldiers by labeling them war criminals. In a country with near-universal conscription for men aged 18-21, and a hard-wired national narrative rife with hero warriors, there is a well-primed and receptive audience for that message. The Israeli media repeats it frequently, along with the claim that most of the testimonies Breaking the Silence collects and curates are anonymous. This is not true, but these days hardly anyone bothers to carry out basic fact checks.

Sigmar Gabriel’s visit to Israel was scheduled so that he could participate in the ceremonies to mark Holocaust Memorial week. When Netanyahu said on Monday that he would not meet him if he also met with the NGOs, the German diplomat responded mildly that that would be “regrettable.”

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel prior to his meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem, April 25, 2017. (Yonathan Sindel/Flash90)

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel prior to his meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem, April 25, 2017. (Yonathan Sindel/Flash90)

Reuters reports that Gabriel expanded on German television, saying, “Imagine if the Israeli Prime Minister … came to Germany and wanted to meet people critical of the government and we said that is not possible … That would be unthinkable.” In other words, the diplomat handled the incident diplomatically — and intelligently. He refused to back down in the face of Netanyahu’s bullying tactics, but he was careful to use language that minimized the diplomatic damage.

This incident makes Netanyahu look bad in the eyes of international observers. He comes across as someone who has little respect for freedom of expression, and as a leader who fears criticism. But the key to understanding Netanyahu, who has been setting standards for 21st century authoritarian leaders since 2009, is that he doesn’t care what the world thinks of him. He cares what his base thinks of him — ‘though they’re mostly in the grips of a cult-like Bibi-worshipping trance these days.

For his base, hardwired nationalists for the most part, jingoistic language about “our soldiers” plays very well indeed. What Netanyahu is doing is discrediting any critics of his government by implying that they have nefarious, unpatriotic, ulterior motives. You’d be amazed at how effective these tactics are. Free speech is excellent, because Netanyahu can continue to assert that Israel is a democracy. Rather than stifling opposition, he discredits it, thus diluting its power to influence Israeli society.

Netanyahu has the United States’s patronage locked down tight for now, with his sponsor Sheldon Adelson pulling the strings in the White House, and the Tea Party with its syncretic right-wing Christian Evangelicals supporting the narrative of Israel’s national-Zionist/settlement movement. He looks a little uncouth right now, and he might be slightly embarrassed at the German government’s failure to escalate the incident — thus denying him further fodder in the form of “how dare those Germans criticize the Jewish state on Holocaust Memorial Day.”

But he’ll get over any residual shame pretty quickly. And if the publicity he provided for Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem results in their receiving increased donations from abroad, so much the better for Netanyahu. He’ll have more reasons to speak darkly about leftist traitors and foreign influences, while simultaneously boasting about Israel’s democratic culture and its lively critical discourse. He’ll stay in power and the status quo will remain exactly as it is.

Read more:
By nixing German FM meet, Netanyahu ups Israel’s tyranny a notch
Germany’s foreign minister calls Netanyahu’s bluff — and rightly so

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    COMMENTS

    1. Firentis

      A German FM came and insisted on meeting groups that are European-funded anti-Israeli propaganda outlets. This is a profound display of disrespect for the government which he is visiting and a further demonstration and reminder of direct European interference in Israeli domestic politics.

      Bibi does not come out looking like the bully. He comes out looking like someone who confronted the bully.

      Reply to Comment
      • Joshua Fisher

        While Isreal officials are allowed to meet with European far-right rascists like Wilders, Le Pen, Haider, Strache, AFD etc. pp. cause they share the same muslim hate bigotry, well?

        Reply to Comment
        • i_like_ike52

          Israeli officials do NOT meet with Wilders and Le Pen (the others I am not familiar with). What are you talking about? The Israeli government doesn’t give money to groups that attack other European governments or fund opposition political forces, the way Obama had the State Department give money to the anti-Netanyahu campaign in the last election.

          Reply to Comment
          • Richard Lightbown

            “The Israeli government doesn’t give money to groups that attack other European governments or fund opposition political forces”

            Funny you should think that. Have a dose of reality:

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUc0VoNYjyA

            Reply to Comment
          • carmen

            That was brilliant investigative reporting.

            Reply to Comment
          • Richard Lightbown

            Indeed, but at what cost to our young hero?

            Reply to Comment
      • carmen

        “This is a profound display of disrespect for the government which he is visiting and a further demonstration and reminder of direct European interference in Israeli domestic politics.”

        Really? B’tselem and Breaking the Silence are respected organizations outside the ziobubble and their voices are being heard with great interest, booboo knows it and is scared shitless. Minister Gabriel choosing to meet with them is logical and smart. There is nobody in booboo’s cabinet with a different pov than booboo, some are worse – bennett, shaked, regev, et al. Obviously other voices need to be heard.

        I believe booboos invite to address congress to influence american policy is the most flagrant display of disrespect to a sitting u.s. president that I’ve seen in my life, be for real FFS.

        Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          They are very well respected by people that hate Israel. There are plenty of other organizations and individuals that Gabriel could have met that do not agree with Bibi. He didn’t have to go to the most extreme far-left organizations that are calling for prosecuting IDF soldiers as war criminals, calling for international sanctions on Israel and calling for the ‘world to punish Israel’ like they did after their meeting with Gabriel.

          He could have also gone to some actual organic Israeli organizations rather than meeting up with European anti-Israeli propaganda proxies.

          Bibi did the right thing when he stood up to this blatant European interference in Israeli domestic affairs and support for extreme anti-Israel organizations. This European hypocrisy of pretending to be Israel’s friend while sponsoring hateful anti-Israeli organizations needs to be called out again and again.

          Reply to Comment
          • carmen

            “Bibi did the right thing when he stood up to this blatant European interference in Israeli domestic affairs and support for extreme anti-Israel organizations. This European hypocrisy of pretending to be Israel’s friend while sponsoring hateful anti-Israeli organizations needs to be called out again and again.”

            B’tselem and Breaking the Silence are anti-occupation organizations. Whine all you want about it, but booboo, unless he has completely gone over to the dark side and is now dictator, can’t dictate who foreign ministers meet with. But I’m glad it happened because no one can deny that he is a power-obsessed, paranoid, fearful, racist, insecure, hateful man still trying to make his dead dad proud.

            Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            What is there to whine about? Gabriel comes away from this looking like an idiot. He came to a foreign country where he wanted a mediation role and left as an undesired guest. No wonder Gabriel ran off with his tail between his legs.

            Future guests will think twice about meeting BtS. Is it worth it if it costs them an international incident and a meeting with the PM? Most of them are trying to actually accomplish stuff.

            Reply to Comment
        • JeffB

          @Carmen

          Netanyahu received an invitation to address a Joint Session of Congress regarding the Iranian deal from the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The United States does not have a parliamentary system. The speaker has neither an obligation nor should there be a norm to ask the President’s permission before calling a witness to testify on a matter of public policy. That would even apply one level lower to a committee chair or co-chair. The United States Congress believed Netanyahu to be an expert on Iran and wanted to here in an official capacity his view before voting. Obama himself lacks the authority to address a Joint Session without the Speaker’s permission, that is not one of President’s powers of office. He most certainly does not have control of witness list. The person who was acting wrongly here (straight up abuse of office) was Obama in threatening a foreign country for a leader of that country acting perfectly in accord with American democracy, with the express permission of the United States Congress. AIPAC asked the Speaker to turn the heat down not up. But rightfully there should have been a motion of censure regarding Obama’s behavior. And I say this as someone who happily voted and donated for Obama twice (well technically 3 times also in the 2012 primary), and would have done so in 2016 if he were allowed to run for a 3rd term.

          Finally you are contradicting yourself:

          There is nobody in booboo’s cabinet with a different pov than booboo, some are worse

          If they are “worse” they have a different point of view.

          Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @Carmen

            The fact that you are a women has nothing to do with the fact you are rude and ignorant. No reason to bring your sexism into it.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “The speaker has neither an obligation nor should there be a norm to ask the President’s permission before calling a witness to testify on a matter of public policy. That would even apply one level lower to a committee chair or co-chair. The United States Congress believed Netanyahu to be an expert on Iran and wanted to here in an official capacity his view before voting.”

            Just astounding baloney. Netanyahu was not a “witness,” “testifying.” He was a political leader of a foreign country speaking against the president in the well of the House of Representatives. And ushered in to do that as a blatantly partisan maneuver, a show, by the opposition party that had absolutely no intention of changing one vote of their own based on what “testimony” Netanyahu revealed. And it violated very clear norms for congressional behavior and for Israeli behavior in terms of bipartisanship. The idea that Obama should be “censured” for “threatening” Netanyahu is simply outrageous. A shameless concoction.

            Reply to Comment
    2. duh

      I just read this headline and all I can think is what was your first clue?

      Reply to Comment
    3. i_like_ike52

      The Germans play a double game with Israel. They beat their chests about the Holocaust, they sell (for good money) submarines to Israel, but then they support anti-Israel organizations, in the name of “human rights” which the Germans don’t really have a good record on, and I include the period after the Second World War, for instance, helping Saddam Hussein build up his chemical warfare infrastructure.
      The Germans are a very disciplined people. If you tell them not to make antisemitic statements publicly, they won’t. That is the situation today, but this was also the situation at the beginning of the First World War. However, once the war stalemated, then they cut loose. Today, they are told “no public antisemitic remarks, but to ahead and curse Israel…you will sound ‘progressive’ to boot!”. Public opinion polls in Germany show a majority believe that Israel is committing “genocide” against the Palestinian people. Now, do they feel this way because the Germans have a special empathy for oppressed people around the world, and the Palestinians in particular, or are there other reasons at work?
      I fully support Netanyahu’s decision not to meet the German.

      Reply to Comment
    4. i_like_ike52

      I just read that Gabriel is a good friend of the Iranian regime and calls Israel an apartheid state. As I said, human rights is not a high priority for Germans like him. I doubt he met anti-regime representatives during his visit to Iran. He was smelling all the money the Germans were going to make from doing business with Iran. The old German double-game.

      Reply to Comment
      • carmen

        Care to share your sources? It’s just a bit disingenuous to go immediately into destroying the other’s credibility mode just because he chose to meet with groups that booboo’s afraid of. Like Joshua noted – israeli leader meet and approve of “European far-right rascists like Wilders, Le Pen, Haider, Strache, AFD etc. pp. cause they share the same muslim hate bigotry” I would also add tRUMP and co (which includes actual antisemites!) yet they’re BFFs. What’s wrong with this picture?

        Reply to Comment
        • Itshak Gordin Halevy

          Bibi has been great. He has killed two birds with one stone. He has warned the foreign diplomats and he has marginalized all these organizations hated by a majority of Israelis. I can assure you. In the future diplomats will think before meeting anybody. Brilliant!

          Reply to Comment
          • Joshua Fisher

            So President Rivlin ist a friend of antisemite Gabriel, cause he met him too?
            And former German president Gauck met with the two NGO’s also, few months ago. Bibi Boobo wasn’t afraid to meet him. Booboo Bibi must be afraid of the nationalist nutcracks in Israel, otherwise he wouldn’t pull a Vladimir Tayip move on Gabriel

            Reply to Comment
          • Itshak Gordin Halevy

            The Israeli government has decided that there will be some changes in the future. There is a new reality. President Rivlin has no power at all.

            Reply to Comment
          • Liz

            “Changes”, a “new reality”. Mazel tov. The hunted has become the hunter. Such threats said with such menace once terrified Jews. Now, so drunk with power their descendants issue them and feel righteous. Who would have thought that the Jewish homeland would end up worshipping at the altar of fascism.

            Reply to Comment
          • Itshak Gordin Halevy

            The German president is coming to apologize.

            Reply to Comment
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