Sixty years after recognizing Israel and opening an embassy in Tel Aviv, the Netherlands’ bilateral relationship with Israel, though solid and friendly on all fronts, has become infinitely more complex, yet normal, and appears to have lost its early emotional intensity and resonance.
“We’ve seen a decline in the emotions that Israel used to arouse in this country,” Israel’s ambassador, Harry Kney-Tal, said in a recent interview at the Israeli embassy in The Hague.
Wim Kortenoeven, a researcher and editor at the Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel, a pro-Israel lobbying group comparable to the Canada-Israel Committee, concurs.
“Before the Yom Kippur War, Israel’s image was that of a peaceful country harassed by the Arabs,” he explained. “Israel was a victim surrounded by enemies. It was compared to Holland facing the might of Spain during the 16th century. Israel could do no wrong. It was a simple black-and-white picture.”
To staunch Dutch Protestants who identified with and viewed the Jewish state through the prism of the Bible, Israel was a special nation.
“It was a story of heroic Israelis,” said Kortenoeven, a Christian. “The Dutch conquered the sea, the Israelis conquered the desert. The friendship was based on emotion rather than on facts.”
But as Dutch society was secularized and the church lost some of its influence, Israel’s lustre dimmed.
“People today are not as exposed to the church’s religious connection to Israel as in the past,” said Kney-Tal.
Israel’s high standing in the Netherlands was also a function of guilt over the murder of 78 per cent of Dutch Jews during the Holocaust, the highest death rate in Nazi-occupied western Europe.
“There was a lot of Dutch collaboration with the Nazis,” Kortenoeven noted.
Addressing this sensitive issue, Kney-Tal observed, “During the early years, there was a sense of guilt over the near destruction of the Jewish community.”
This spirit came to the fore during the Six Day War, when Dutch military equipment reached Israel and pro-Israel public opinion in the Netherlands soared. After 1967, when the Soviet Union broke diplomatic relations with Israel, Dutch diplomats represented Israeli interests in Moscow.
“This [pro-Israel] feeling is now dissipating, going away” said Kney-Tal. “The tendency among younger people is to treat the Holocaust as a distant event.”
In retrospect, the Yom Kippur War was a historic turning point, irretrievably altering the tone of Israel’s relations with the Netherlands.
OPEC – the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries – imposed an oil embargo on the United States and its NATO ally, the Netherlands, after both countries expressed verbal and material support for Israel.
Although the embargo lasted less than six months, it affected the Netherlands’ economic interests, forcing car-less Sundays, for example.
The Netherlands was singled out for retribution for at least two reasons. Dutch cabinet ministers were vocal in proclaiming support for Israel, while Arab rage was heightened by the news that the Netherlands secretly delivered Centurion tank parts and munitions to Israel during its campaign to drive the Syrian army off the Golan Heights.
Stung by the Arab reaction, both the Dutch government and the media adopted what Kortenoeven describes as “an unsentimental” and “more critical” appraisal of Israel.
Kney-Tal agrees with this sober assessment.
“From the 1950s to the 1970s, Israel had a very positive image in the Netherlands. In recent years, the opposite. Criticism of Israel is on the rise. There is a perception that Israel is not doing the right thing.”
The Yom Kippur War was not the only factor that affected Israel’s image in the Netherlands, according to Kortenoeven.
Dutch views of Israel were shaken by the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982. The Phalange, a Lebanese Christian militia aligned with Israel during its invasion of Lebanon, carried out the killings under the very noses of the Israeli army.
“This had a deep impact on Dutch public opinion,” said Kortenoeven.”
Israel’s image was further tarnished by the first and second Palestinian uprisings and by Israel’s settlement policy in the territories.
These days, he said, the majority of Dutch people regard Israel as “the bully of the neighbourhood.”
On a government-to-government bilateral level, however, Israel and the Netherlands continued to enjoy good relations.
Dutch intelligence provided Israel with progress reports about Iraq’s French-built nuclear reactor. During the 1991 Gulf War, the Netherlands dispatched a battery of Patriot missiles to Israel, whose cities were bombarded by 39 Iraqi Scud missiles.
Bringing the situation right up to date, Kney-Tal called the Netherlands “one of the good guys” in the European Union. “It is one of the few countries in the EU that shows a great deal of understanding for Israel’s predicament and supports the upgrading of Israel’s ties with the EU.”
He added, “The Netherlands is punching above its political weight when it comes to Israel.”
Nonetheless, the Netherlands subscribes to and supports the common EU position on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s current foreign minister, has said that the Europeans favour a sovereign Palestinian state loosely based on the 1967 borders, with eastern Jerusalem as its capital city.
“I don’t think the Netherlands will break with the EU consensus,” said Kney-Tal, adding that the Netherlands opposes imposed solutions and diktats.
In formulating policy toward Israel, the Netherlands – a mercantile nation whose volume of trade with Israel was $4 billion in 2008, just behind Britain and Germany – always considers EU opinion and the position of the United States.
“The Netherlands manoeuvres between these two parameters,” said Kney-Tal, Israel’s former envoy to the European Union.
Like all 27 EU member states, the Netherlands considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal under international law, as well as an obstacle to peace. It also objects to the route of Israel’s security barrier, which juts into the West Bank.
When Israel invaded the Gaza Strip in 2009, the Netherlands voiced understanding. “It was understood that Israel could no longer tolerate rocket attacks, and that Israel had a right to defend itself,” said Kney-Tal. Nevertheless, the Netherlands expressed concern about Palestinian civilian casualties.
The Netherlands has advised Israel to follow the recommendations of the UN Goldstone report, which concluded that Israel and Hamas committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity during the fighting.
By Kney-Tal’s reckoning, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel has had a “moderate” impact in the Netherlands. “It’s not on the level of the BDS campaign in Britain.”
The Netherlands has aligned itself with the EU on Iran’s quest for a nuclear arsenal, said Kney-Tal.
Last December, the Europeans urged international action against Iran following its refusal to co-operate with the UN.
“The Netherlands will support, though not initiate, tough sanctions against Iran,” said Kney-Tal.