Holland’s ‘idealist’ foreign minister gets real on Palestine
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Holland’s ‘idealist’ foreign minister gets real on Palestine

Bert Koenders in The Hague on Oct. 17, 2014 (Courtesy of the Dutch Government)

Bert Koenders in The Hague on Oct. 17, 2014 (Courtesy of the Dutch Government)

THE HAGUE (JTA) — Dutch supporters of recognizing Palestinian statehood were disappointed last week when their newly appointed foreign minister and Great White Hope, Bert Koenders, said the Netherlands would not do so.

Koenders, a Labor politician has a record of supporting pro-Palestinian arguments — saying Israel should compensate the Netherlands for destroying the Dutch-funded Gaza port; calling the blockade on Gaza a collective punishment and condemning the West Bank security barrier as a violation of international law. Nonetheless, he said he opposed recognition because it would not contribute to renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

“The overwhelming majority, including the Dutch government, believes that it does not contribute to the priority issue of restarting negotiations if we all of a sudden go ahead [and recognize a Palestinian state] because Sweden also did it,” Koenders said, in reference to the Swedish gesture last month, which triggered motions favoring recognition in Spain, Britain, France and the European Union. The Netherlands, Koenders said, would recognize Palestine “at a strategic moment.”

Organizations like A Different Jewish Voice — a group that according to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement’s official website has organized an event advocating a boycott of Israel — had expected Koenders to be an ally last month when he replaced Frans Timmermans, who was an outspoken critic of Israel’s settlement policy and said religion was not the reason Hamas is fighting Israel.

On the day of Koenders’ nomination, in a statement titled “Timmermans’ Israel-Palestine policy was often disappointing,” A Different Jewish Voice expressed “hope and anticipation that Timmermans’ successor, Bert Koenders, will take a more confrontational course of action on Israel.” The text urged Koenders: “Recognize an independent Palestine. Employ sanctions against settlements.”

In an angry response to Koenders’ announcement, A Different Jewish Voice Chairman Jaap Hamburger wrote that “Koenders’ ‘strategic moment has come long ago” and emphasized that Koenders’ party has come out in favor of recognizing statehood.

Clearly, the rejection of recognition by Labor and by Koenders of all people came to many as a shock.

As for me, I would not have necessarily bet all my chips on him acting as he did. But I can’t say I was very surprised.

Koenders already had a reputation of being a blue-eyed idealist when I met him in Amsterdam in 2010.

When I confronted him with claims that he was naïve, he smiled and told me: “On purpose. I always try to be a little naïve to remain positive.” But instead of another European with a bleeding heart and a soft spot for tales about Israel’s cruelty — Holland has a few of those — the Koenders I encountered was in fact a realist with a lot of attention to detail, even when the details don’t quite fit into his optimistic worldview.

On the compensation issue, he told me: “The Dutch taxpayer put enormous amounts of money and time into creating infrastructure for the Palestinian Authority that was later destroyed. Sometimes by the Palestinians themselves. But in most cases by Israelis.” Yet instead of compensation, Koenders said he was merely favoring more accountability in expenditure on foreign aid. He also spoke out against corruption in the Palestinian Authority.

And while he condemned what he called Israeli occupation and the settlement policy, he spared no condemnation of Hamas’ brand of terrorism.

He also said Israel “had a better grasp of how to integrate immigrants than Dutch society.”

What stuck with me was the humble tone with which Koenders concluded our interview four years ago.

“People from Israel, they say to me: ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ And I sometimes understand them. Sometimes that’s true,” he said. “Terrorism is something that Dutch society also has to cope with, but does not quite know how.”