The 24-hour visit by German chancellor Angela Merkel to Israel this week came as relations between the two countries hit rock bottom. According to a report in Der Spiegel magazine last week, Merkel and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been drawn into shouting matches when discussing by phone the faltering peace process.
Despite their smiles to the cameras during the visit, tension behind the scenes has been heightened by a diplomatic bust-up earlier this month when Martin Schulz, the president of the European parliament and himself German, gave a speech to the Israeli parliament.
In unprecedented scenes, a group of Israeli legislators heckled Schulz, calling him a "liar," and then staged a walk-out, led by the economics minister Naftali Bennett. Rather than apologizing, Netanyahu intervened to lambast the European leader for being misinformed.
Schulz, who, like Merkel, is considered a close friend of Israel, used his speech vehemently to oppose growing calls in Europe for a boycott of Israel. So how did he trigger such opprobrium?
Schulz's main offence was posing a question: was it true, as he had heard in meetings in the West Bank, that Israelis have access to four times more water than Palestinians? He further upset legislators by gently suggesting that Israel's blockade of Gaza was preventing economic growth there.
Neither statement should have been in the least controversial. Figures from independent bodies such as the World Bank show Israel, which controls the region's water supplies, allocates per capita about 4.4 times more water to its population than the Palestinians.
Equally, it would be hard to imagine that years of denying goods and materials to Gaza, and blocking exports, have not ravaged its economy. The unemployment rate, for example, has increased 6 percent, to 38.5 percent, following Israel's recent decision to prevent the transfer of construction materials to Gaza's private sector.
But Israelis rarely hear such facts, either from their politicians or media. And few are willing to listen when a rare voice like Schulz's intervenes. Israelis have grown content living in a large bubble of denial.
Netantahu and his ministers are making every effort to reinforce that bubble, just as they have tried to shield Israelis from the fact that they live in the Middle East, not Europe, by building walls on every side -- both physical and bureacratic -- to exclude Palestinians, Arab neighbors, foreign workers and asylum seekers.
Inside Israel, the government is seeking to silence the few critical voices left. The intimidation was starkly on display last week as the supreme court considered the constitutionality of the recent "boycott law," which threatens to bankrupt anyone calling for a boycott of either Israel or the settlements.
Tellingly, a lawyer for the government defended its position by arguing that Israel could not afford freedom of expression of the kind enjoyed by countries like the US.
Illustrating the point, uproar greeted the news last month that a civics teacher had responded negatively when asked by pupils whether he thought Israel's army the most moral in the world. A campaign to sack him has been led by government ministers and his principal, who stated: "There are sacred cows I won't allow to be slaughtered."
Similarly, last week it emerged that a Palestinian from East Jerusalem had been interrogated by police for incitement after noting on Facebook that his city was "under occupation."
Outside Israel, Netanyahu is indulging in more familiar tactics to browbeat critics. Tapping European sensitivities, he accused those who support a boycott of being "classical anti-semites in modern garb." Netanyahu justified the allegation, as he has before, on the grounds that Israel is being singled out.
It looks that way to Israelis only because they have singularly insulated themselves from reality.
Western critics focus on Israel because, unlike countries such as North Korea or Iran, it has managed to avoid any penalties despite riding roughshod over international norms for decades.
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