For Olaf Scholz it was split-second decision, but he will feel the consequences for some time to come.
Seven decades after the end of the Nazi era, and their industrialised murder of six million Jews, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas used a joint press conference with the German chancellor to say his people had endured “50 Holocausts” since Israel was founded.
Mr Abbas has form in this field and after his latest remarks — in the Berlin chancellery of all places — he earned a discreet wink of approval from his spokesman.
Instead of catching the remark and challenging it, German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit wrapped up the press conference and, after a second’s hesitation, a visibly vexed Scholz let him do so.
After a few hours’ delay, the apologies began, but by that stage the damage was done.
Like every postwar German chancellor before him, Scholz, on taking office last December, knew that managing relations with Israel and Palestine would be a minefield.
Early in their press conference it was clear that the German leader was on high alert with his 87-year-old visitor.
The chancellor’s briefing memo no doubt recalled how, four years ago, Abbas suggested at a meeting in the West Bank that Jews had no place in the Middle East and that it was not anti-Semitism but their own “social function” — as bankers and moneylenders — that caused their mass murder. He subsequently apologised for the comments and condemned anti-Semitism.
Earlier in their press conference Scholz intervened when Abbas suggested Israel operates an “apartheid system”.
“I expressly want to say here at this point that I do not make my own the word apartheid,” said Scholz, “and that I do not consider this to be correct to describe the situation.”
Failing to intervene a second time, however, proved fatal. As anger built in Israel, and after a clarification from his spokesman, it was 12 hours before Scholz took to Twitter to explain — in German, English and Hebrew — how “disgusted” he was by the remarks.
In the fast-moving world of internet diplomacy, 12 hours is an eternity, and the online reactions were faster — and furious.
“A sovereign statesman should be able to give answers without his team of advisers,” wrote one German Twitter user.
Breaking her post-retirement silence, ex-chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the “relativisation” of the Holocaust, adding: “Germany will never tolerate such efforts.”