Ex-Dutch prime minister and Israel critic Andreas Van Agt (Cnaan Liphshiz)
The emotion in Andreas Van Agt’s voice as he lambastes Israel’s behavior seems puzzling for a man of his status. It is especially intriguing when one is reminded that this blue-eyed professed idealist is an astute statesman who presided as the Dutch prime minister for five years, until 1982.
“My involvement in the Middle East is certainly unusual,” Van Agt confessed in an interview with Haaretz at his home in Nijmegen, where he discussed Israel, the Palestinians, European foreign policy, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.
Currently, Van Agt is writing a book about the Israeli-Arab conflict. In December he launched an info-site (www.driesvanagt.nl) about the subject, in which he accuses Israel of brutal treatment of the Palestinians, violating international law and implementing racist policies.
Among other illustrations, the site contains one snapshot of a graffiti slogan said to have been sprayed by Jewish settlers on a Hebron wall, reading: “Arabs to the gas chambers.”
Last year, Van Agt spoke as keynote speaker at a controversial solidarity rally with the Palestinian people in Rotterdam, where he lamented the Dutch boycott of Hamas, calling it wrong “and even stupid.” He has also been outspoken in accusing the Israel Defense Forces of acting like a terrorist organization.
“In my country, people are highly surprised by my demeanor. Some even say it should be ascribed to my advanced age; that I’m not fully in my right mind anymore,” the 77-year-old says with a snicker while sitting under the outdated portrait of the Queen, which hangs on the wall of his modern-style, taupe-colored den.
Van Agt hails from the ranks of the ruling party, the Christian Democratic Appeal. Such statements about Israel can therefore be seen as embarrassing for the current leadership, which is considered one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in the European Union.
When Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen was asked earlier this year during a visit to Israel whether he regarded the statements by the former premier as embarrassing to the government, his first response was a hearty laugh. He then distanced himself from the former leader. “Dries Van Agt represents the opinion of one man: Dries Van Agt,” Verhagen told Haaretz.
Van Agt nonetheless maintains his statements are embarrassing to CDA top-brass, adding that the embarrassment is not an undesirable effect as far as he is concerned. “I could say that maybe what I’m doing is not as embarrassing to them as it should be,” he says.
His penchant for criticizing Israel to varying degrees of acrimoniousness was not characteristic of his term in office. “The Dutch Jimmy Carter”, as local media sometimes dub him, says he became vocal after 1999, when his “eyes were opened” during a traditional catholic pilgrimage trip to religious sites in the Holy Land.
“I’m driven partly by my shame for not speaking up for the Palestinians when I was in power, and partly by some striking experiences I had when visiting the Occupied Territories in the recent past,” he says. “People often ask me how come I’m so outspoken now, but did not speak up when I was in a position of power. And it’s true, I never spoke up for the Palestinians, except for when Sabra and Shatila happened. And even that was in soft terms.”
Van Agt says he is still “ashamed” that he made effort to sooth matters for Israel after the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Christian militiamen in an IDF-controlled area of Lebanon. “That was my inclination, that was how I was mentally structured vis-à-vis Israel at the time,” he says.
But much more than Sabra and Shatila, it was the story of one Palestinian young man from Bethlehem which put Van Agt on his present course, according to the ex-premier.
“In one of my visits to Bethlehem I heard a story, which now I know is just one of many,” Van Agt recalls. “It was a story horrendous humiliation of a Palestinian student trying to get to university for a collective exam. His story, which the university president told me, struck me like lightening.”
At the last IDF checkpoint on the way, according to the story which Van Agt says he heard from the university president, the student was pulled over and ordered to climb out of the window. “Then the humiliation began. He fell down and was then ordered to walk on hands and feet and bark. Then the soldiers laughed about the Palestinians all being dogs.”
That story, Van Agt says, served to undermine his former conviction that “everything which Israel does is what it needs to do for its survival.” It launched him into the problem, he says.
“I began studying, figuring out what’s going on there. I found one story after the other. Then I started thinking about the 39 United Nations resolutions begging, demanding and imploring Israel to vacate the Occupied Territories. All were dismissed by Israel. Saddam Hussein was attacked after four resolutions, but Israel got 39 and nobody talks about applying even the slightest pressure on Israel to comply with them,” he complains.
Europeans, he says, have a political obligation toward the Palestinians which they have overlooked. “All the other Arabs, in some way or another, happy or unhappy, dictatorial or not, have their only states. The only Arabs that never got a state were the Palestinians. That has to do with the former colonialist powers, the U.K. and France.”
The second reason for his feeling of commitment toward the Palestinians, Van Agt says, is that “without the worst crime in the history of humanity, the Holocaust, the Shoa, Israel would not have come into existence in that time and in that formula.”
Most Western nations, he says, are in some form complicit in the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis, be it by denying shelter for Jewish refugees, or collaborating with the Germans. This resulted in guilt which prompted Europeans “to sacrifice the Palestinians for Israel,” he proposes. “The Palestinians paid the price for something they were not responsible for. That is my drive,” he says after a short dramatic pause. “And the emotions you see are real and authentic, and they stem from this injustice.”
The self-proclaimed commitment that European nations have for democracy, Van Agt argues, means that they should recognize Hamas as a legitimate representative of the Palestinians. “It is not Hamas’ government which is illegitimate,” he says, alluding to Hamas’ victory in the 2006 elections over Fatah. “It is counterproductive and unwise not to talk to Hamas – also because the legitimacy of the current government in Ramallah is questionable.”
The three conditions for recognizing Hamas as stipulated by Israel and the Quartet strike Van Agt as stupid. “The first requirement, that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is biased because Israel does not recognize Hamas’ right to rule. Where’s the reciprocity there?” he complains. Besides, he says, “Israel has never defined its own borders, so demanding Hamas to recognize an entity without clear borders is totally unreasonable.”
The demand that Hamas honor the Palestinian Authority’s past agreements with Israel is also unpalatable to Van Agt, on the grounds that they were not signed and conducted by a democratically elected, and hence legitimate, regime. To him, the Palestinian Authority consists of a bunch of small, fragmented Bantustans,” he says.
“The Oslo Accords and the talks that followed were the most self-defeating thing Arafat had ever done,” the former premier observes. “The Accords didn’t provide any guarantees to the Palestinians and were not based on international law. And Abbas is continuing with this endeavor which runs contrary to the rights and interests of the Palestinians.”
As for the third demand, which is to renounce violence, Van Agt says: “First of all, Israel is still employing violence, so again there’s no reciprocity. But besides that, since when does international law renounce the right of occupied people to resist the occupying power?”
When the subject of Hamas’ own debatable level of commitment to democratic values comes up – along with the question of whether the Islamist organization should be afforded the protection of a set of values that it does not honor ? Van Agt acknowledges that “things could be better.”
He adds: “Hamas’ behavior is reason for great concern, that’s right. But it’s ignorant to judge how Hamas is ruling without taking into account the impossible conditions in Gaza, the biggest prison in the world.”
Hamas’ suicide bombings are “illegal and detestable” to Van Agt, he says, but he would only agree to call Hamas a terrorist organization if the definition is applied to the Israeli army as well. “If one party is called a terrorist entity because it carries out deliberate attacks against civilians to pursue political goals, then the Israeli army is guilty of state terrorism. That needs to be said, too. Human rights organizations report that the Israeli army has killed more than 3000 Palestinian civilians since the beginning of the second Intifada.”
Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin, he recalls, “introduced the bombing of civilians as a military tactic in the run up to the establishment of Israel, and were therefore called terrorists.”
The perceived failure of Israel’s neighbors to live up to Western standards of democracy is also a result of their conflict with Israel, according to Van Agt. “Maybe I’m a naïve idealist, but I think that if Israel had not evolved into being a disaster for its neighbors then they would behave much batter. Not perfectly, not to the full standard, but much better. I cannot help but put much of the blame on Israel itself, and the pressure that it has placed on its neighboring countries.”
However, Van Agt is willing to acknowledge that Israel is currently fighting extremist Muslim groups who are also committed to the destruction of societies like the Netherlands.
In Van Agt’s eyes, Israel “is not behaving like a country that deserves to be called a member of the family of civilized nations.” This observation applies to the U.S. too, he says, “which is co-responsible for the injustice we have been facing for decades.”
According to Van Agt, Israel is making frequent and excessive use of deadly force against the Palestinians. This accusation has been seen as hypocritical of Van Agt by some pro-Zionist detractors in the Netherlands, most notably by the Hague-based Center for Information and Documentation (CIDI.)
In 1977, when Van Agt was justice minister, a group of Moluccan militants seeking autonomy for their group of Indonesian islands hijacked a train in northeast Holland and took its 50 passengers hostage for 20 days. Rather than resolve the situation through dialogue, Van Agt voted in favor of a military operation that left six of the nine hijackers dead, along with two hostages.
The analogy between the use of force in the Moluccan hijacking case and use of force by Israelis against Palestinians is farfetched, Van Agt says. “Given the same set of circumstances, I would still authorize the use of force,” he says.
According to his account, it was Van Agt who cast the deciding vote in favor of the action in a small forum of five.
“The prime minister was against the action and another minister was also opposed. I was for it along with two others. We had tried to negotiate for long enough – weeks.
The situation on the train, Van Agt recalls, was becoming critical.” Doctors warned us that people on the train might have heart attacks. There was also the possibility that someone might go berserk and attack one of the highjackers – and who knows what kind of bloodshed might have ensued. I would do the same exactly all over again.”
The militants’ demands nonetheless seem justified to Van Agt, he says. The South-Moluccans, who were seen by many Indonesians as collaborators with the Dutch colonizing power, came to Holland in the 1950s for a temporary stay. They had been promised by the Dutch government that they would get their own independent state, but felt betrayed after the Netherlands failed to deliver.
Over the years, several opinion-shapers, including the German writer and journalist Henryk Broder have accused Van Agt of anti-Semitism because of his criticism of Israel. People from organizations which are critical of Israel and regularly confer with Van Agt, like “A Different Jewish Voice” and United Civilians for Peace, say he is anything but anti-Semitic.
He says he has had to face the accusation because “It’s the most effective way of keeping countless others from following my example and speaking about what they really feel.”
The accusers, however, allege Van Agt demonstrated anti-Semitism before he became so involved with the Palestinian cause. In 1972, one year after he left his position as a lecturer on criminal law to become justice minister, Van Agt sparked a heated debate by attempting to pardon the last three Nazi war criminals still in Dutch prisons.
At a press conference that same year, he said to a journalist: “I am only an Aryan” in speaking about his intention to bring about the Nazi prisoners’ release for health reasons.
“I was what is called a progressive thinker,” Van Agt explains. “Now, in the last years of my life, I’m returning to that. I had some very modern ideas about the use and uselessness of applying criminal law sanctions. I have very serious doubts about the use, and hence justification, of detaining people for anything but the heaviest crimes.”
“I had these kinds of ideas long before I came to a position of power. I wrote about them and promulgated them in books and articles. So that was nothing new. Then all of a sudden, to the surprise of everyone, including myself and my wife, I became justice minister. And that meant I got the problem of the three remaining Germans war criminals in Dutch prisons on my plate.”
The two previous justice ministers, Teun Struycken and Carel Polak, also supported releasing the prisoners in principle, according to Van Agt. “Polak was one of the many highly gifted sons of the Jewish people”, Van Agt says. “And justice minister Ivo Samkalden, also Jewish, had released one of the Dutch war criminals already in the 1960’s.”
“These ministers agreed that holding on to the prisoners was senseless,” he adds. “I would still support their release if it happened today. They were of bad health, and one or two of them was senile. I still believe it’s nonsense to keep a senile person in prison, and when detaining people doesn’t make sense, then it’s injustice.”
Injustice in the case of the Nazi criminals was not the way to celebrate the reestablishment of Dutch constitutional state (Rechtstaat in Dutch) after the Nazi occupation, he argues. “It needed to be shown in its full potential. Keeping these people in jail served no legal purposes. Specific prevention? They couldn’t even handle a pen. And as for general prevention, well, did anyone think the Germans would start another war if the prisoners were released?” Two of the Breda Three were released in 1989. A third died in the southern-Holland prison in 1979.
The famous “Aryan” statement, which grabbed headlines in 1972, needs to be understood in context, he says. “When I just got my appointment as a minister, the first thing I did was meet the press. I was totally inexperienced and green. It was a very informal cocktail party. I went around, mingled, made jokes and was basically having fun with the new friends to come.”
Then the question came up. “I should have known it, but I was so naïve then. One journalist asked if I would act to end the continued detention of the three German prisoners. And then I made the gravest mistake. I said that even my Jewish predecessor was unsuccessful in getting them out of jail – ‘and I’m only an Aryan.'”
Slowly shaking his head, Van Agt repeats the short explosive sentence. “It was made in self-deprecation. I was deriding myself, a style which has always characterized my presentations. But that wretched word was in the newspapers the next morning. One guy picked out that one sentence from that informal conversation.”
The explanations eventually satisfied the Dutch electorate and the press, Van Agt says. “I hadn’t heard about the story for 30 years, but when I started becoming critical of the state of Israel, it resurfaced in an effort to silence me. Those who criticize me and others who speak out, always target the person bearing the message. They are not interested in a fair and open debate. Kill the messenger, if you can’t beat the message.” In earnest tone of voice, he concludes: “I am definitely not an Anti-Semite.”
Moreover, he says that no anti-Semite could ever reach a position of power in the Netherlands. “It’s absolutely impossible. Even among those who have become highly critical of Israel’s illegal policies, there is a deep respect for the Jewish people.”
That respect, he says, has developed into a “deeply engrained consciousness of the contribution that European Jews have made over the years to European culture. No one with anti-Jewish sentiments could come to power here.”
By Cnaan Liphshiz, Haaretz Correspondent