Dutch support for Israel eroding
The Netherlands has always headed the list of European countries that support Israel. Since 1982, however, public opinion has grown ambivalent. The Dutch still admire Israel as a nation, but they frown on its policies toward the Palestinians. By Michel Hoebink
Perhaps the Dutch have a guilty conscience. During World War Two, the Nazis deported about 100,000 Dutch Jews, meeting little resistance from the non-Jewish population. This may be one reason why the Netherlands has always had more sympathy for Israel than most other European countries.
During and after the 1967 Six Day War, Dutch support for Israel was almost unanimous. Secondary school pupils sang the battle songs of the Israeli army and many Dutch cars sported bumper stickers that read 'We support Israel'.
David and Goliath
Dutch Christians upheld the concept of Israel as the 'Holy Land'. The more progressive, secular Dutch population saw Israel as a small, enlightened nation that brought European ideals of socialism and democracy to a 'backwards' Middle East. Hundreds of idealistic Dutch youths travelled to Israel to work on the collective farms, the Kibbutzim.
The wars of 1967 and 1973 confirmed the Dutch perception of the Israelis as the underdogs. The small nation fighting the armies of the surrounding Arab countries was compared to the biblical hero David who defeated the giant Goliath. The plight of the Palestinians was ignored.
Middle East expert Bertus Hendriks remembers how difficult it was in those days to express a balanced viewpoint including a Palestinian perspective. He was the president of the General Students' Union of Amsterdam (ASVA), which supported Israel's right to exist in peace and security. But it also criticized the one-sided approach to the conflict which was so pervasive in the Netherlands at that time. The union also disputed anti-Arab rhetoric, says Hendriks.
"This standpoint brought us strong condemnations from all sides."
Dutch public opinion began to change during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Palestinian terrorist attacks in the preceding years had only boosted sympathy for Israel, but Israeli air strikes on Palestinian civilians and Israel's indirect involvement in the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps met with condemnation. Israel went from victim to perpetrator.
According to political scientist Fred Grünfeld, who wrote a book on Dutch perceptions of Israel, public opinion grew ambivalent after 1982.
"On the one hand, the basic attitude is pro-Israel, but at the same time there is a growing irritation with Israeli policies."
From 1982, the idealized image of Israel became tarnished, explains Bertus Hendriks.
"The first intifada played a prominent role in this process. The Israeli military firing at stone-throwing Palestinian youths; Prime Minister Rabin vowing to 'break the bones' of the stone-throwers."
The allegory of David and Goliath was reversed in favour of the Palestinians, says Hendriks.
"A helpless people fighting their oppressor with stones. That image lent an enormous legitimacy to the Palestinian cause in Dutch public opinion."
After the Oslo agreements of 1993, Dutch development workers travelled to the occupied territories and came back with stories about the daily life of the Palestinians.
"They saw the harassments, the illegal expansion of Jewish settlements. The image of liberal occupation, carefully projected by Israel, was further undermined."
The emergence of the fundamentalist Hamas movement and a wave of suicide attacks against Israel did not help the Palestinian cause in the Netherlands. All the more because these developments coincided with the global tension between the Islam and the West after 9/11. But according to Bertus Hendriks, sympathy for Israel continued to erode.
Until today, however, Dutch governments have always stuck to their pro-Israeli stance. The present coalition of Christian Democrats and Labour supports the Israeli boycott of Hamas as a partner in peace negotiations. Speaking in January this year, Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen, a Christian Democrat, blamed Hamas for the crisis in Gaza. But Dutch Development Minister Bert Koenders, from the Labour Party, caused commotion by calling the Israeli blockade of Gaza a "collective punishment and a transgression of international law".
With this statement, Koenders expressed a growing call within his party to take a firmer stand towards Israel.
14 May 2008
[Copyright Radio Netherlands 2008]