The Need for Dutch Courage on Israel

The story of Anne Frank, who died in the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in March 1945, is one of the most moving and well-known events in recent history. Less well known is the fact that the number of Dutch Jews, 105,000 or 75% of the Jewish community, who perished during the Holocaust is larger than that of any other Western European country. Yet, these terrible figures do not tell the whole story in the country occupied by Nazi Germany. Heroism was also present. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, lists 5,269 Dutch among the 24,300 individuals it names as Righteous among the Nations, people who risked their lives, or liberty, or position, to help Jews during the Holocaust.

The Netherlands today illustrates similar ambivalent attitudes. Its now small Jewish community of 29,900 is integrated and accepted but attitudes towards the State of Israel are problematic. The issue is best illustrated by the language and actions of Dutch government officials. The most prominent is Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans who has been critical of blatantly biased opponents of Israel while himself being critical of Israeli settlements.

Timmermans had already showed independent judgment and forthright opinions on both Middle East and non Middle Eastern affairs. In February 2013 he challenged Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and condemned the Russian bill banning homosexual propaganda. He held that Russian anti-gay information legislation would infringe fundamental rights. A month later, Timmermans criticized Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's intemperate comment that Zionism was a crime against humanity. He called the remark damaging to a constructive climate for peace in the region.

In January 2014 Timmermans has taken equivocal stands regarding Israel. On the positive side he took a strong stand against two bills that had been introduced in the parliament of Morocco by members of five political parties. One of the parties was the Islamic Justice and Development Party, not only the largest political party but also the prime minister's own party, and another was PAM, the party associated with the king; between them they control 271 of the 395 seats.

The bills are intended to criminalize contacts with Israel, making it illegal to trade with Israeli entities, and also making it illegal for Israelis to enter Morocco. Timmermans urged the king, Mohammed VI, to veto these bills.

Timmermans' action is interesting in two contexts, that of Morocco and that of his own country. In view of Moroccan history during and since World War II it is surprising that internal Islamic forces there are playing such a considerable role. During World War II the then king, Sultan Mohammed V, had refused to activate or had limited the application of the anti-Semitic laws declared by the Vichy government that excluded Jews from public activities.

The present king, Mohammed VI, regarded as a progressive, pro-Western leader, has introduced some social reforms and economic liberalization in the country. Unlike most Arab leaders he has also spoken out strongly about the reality of the Holocaust, "one of the most tragic chapters of modern history." He is conscious that the once vibrant Jewish community of 250,000 in Morocco is now little more than 2000.

Diplomatic ties with Israel were established in 1994, but as a result of the intifada started by Yasser Arafat in 2000, they were subsequently closed down. All the same, Israel is important to the Moroccan economy. Despite the absence of an official diplomatic relationship, at least 45,000 Israeli tourists visit Morocco annually. In view of this it is unlikely that the two anti-Israeli bills will be allowed to become law, and Timmermans showed political courage in urging the king to prevent this.

Timmermans has been more understanding of the hostility against Israel than most Western European political figures. He refused to make any critical remarks about the Israeli strikes against Syria in May 2013, though the European Union had done so. He argued that Israel was right to look after its security: "I have no criticism on Israel's actions as it faces the risk of madman Bashar Assad."

He recognizes that European countries judge Israel by a standard different from that by which all other Middle East countries are judged, largely because they view Israel as they would a European country to be judged by European standards. He has informed the Arab world that they would all benefit from closer cooperation with Israel.

But like all democratic countries, the Netherlands is now caught in a dilemma caused by the Palestinian narrative of victimhood and the pressure groups anxious to engage in boycotts against Israel. Timmermans himself rejects boycotts or sanctions against the State of Israel, but he is concerned as is the European Union about Israeli settlements and the products made by their members. The EU, which regards the settlements as illegal, in 2013 issued guidelines and a directive to member states that all future agreements between the EU and Israel should exclude the settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Dutch government has essentially accepted the EU guidelines in its policy regarding the settlements.

The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, has recommended that Dutch retailers label the products from beyond the Green Line (defined as Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, West Bank, or Palestinian territories) as such. Timmermanns is more qualified and ambivalent. He has said that the Dutch recommendation refers only to the labeling of the products, not to the import and sale of settlement products, which is legal.

The government of the Netherlands is regarded as a strong supporter of Israel. Yet, it has concurred in the European directive to discourage businesses from any dealings with the settlements. The country has now the scene of at least three recent developments by Dutch companies that have discontinued relations with the alleged settlements.

The first is that the largest pension fund manager PGGM withdrew all its investments from Israel's five largest banks because it had branches in the West Bank or helped finance construction in settlements. The large water company Vitens ended its deal with the Israeli company Mekorot because of "the political context of West Bank settlements." One can see this as somewhat ironical or even hypocritical since Vitens continues its project with the Water Utility company in Gaza, an arm of the government of Hamas, that the EU regards as a terrorist group.

The third development is that the large engineering company, Royal Haskoning DHV, under pressure from the government, has ended its contract in east Jerusalem for the sewage treatment facility project in east Jerusalem because it had "come to understand the project could be in violation of international law."

Mr. Timmermans showed courage in dealing with the Russians and with Morocco. He and the Netherlands government now have the chance to be equally courageous regarding the business relations of Dutch corporations and individual citizens with Israel. He and the government could withdraw from the absurd position that the building of a sewage treatment plant is a violation of international law. They could pressure PGGM and Vitens to reverse their decisions.

Above all they should resist the relentless Palestinian pressure to boycott Israel and instead encourage the Palestinian leadership to take part in the peace process which the Netherlands strongly supports. Mr. Timmermans, who may well become the next foreign minister of the European Union, could take the initiative in declaring that actions favoring the boycott of Israel are hindering a successful outcome of the peace process of which the Dutch government is a strong advocate.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.