TCS Daily

Losing Europe

By Joshua Livestro - April 23, 2004 12:00 AM

In 1972, the former Dutch Prime Minister Willem Drees wrote in his memoirs about his admiration for the State of Israel, saying that "both country and people have made a lasting impression on me." His attitude was typical of the Dutch view of Israel at the time. As foreign policy analyst Alfred Pijpers explained, the Dutch had many different reasons for liking Israel: "Social Democrats were enamored of the pioneer spirit and the socialist experiment of the kibbutzim. Liberals liked the entrepreneurial spirit of the Jewish people and the military successes of the young state of Israel. To Christian Democrats, Israel was 'the promised land,' in which many Biblical prophecies were being fulfilled."

Fast forward to 2002. Another former prime minister, Dries van Agt, decided to join the pro-Palestinian propaganda group "Stop the Occupation." In explaining his decision, he referred to the "Jenin massacre" as evidence of "Israeli brutality." Israel, he claimed, "has lost its moral legitimacy in this conflict." Van Agt isn't the only Dutch opinion leader now singing from a Palestinian hymn sheet. Just last week Marcel van Dam, a prominent political commentator, accused Israel of being a "terror state" guilty of "criminal acts" perpetrated against the Palestinian people. The Dutch media are uniformly pro-Palestinian, describing suicide bombers as "militants" or "activists."

In just under 30 years, the Palestinian PR machine has scored a spectacular victory over Israel in what used to be the most pro-Israeli country in Europe. How did Israel fall so far from favor in Dutch eyes? At least three factors have influenced this process. First of all, there is what one might call the "Mandela factor." The early 1990s was a period of tremendous optimism about the possibility of resolving seemingly intractable historical conflicts. The German nation was reunited; the former Communist states were turning into parliamentary democracies; the apartheid regime in South Africa disappeared without a single shot being fired. In that state of euphoria, it was tempting to assume that even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could finally be solved. Yasser Arafat was cast in the role of Palestinian Mandela, a terrorist turned peacemaker.

The Oslo peace accords and the shared Nobel Peace Prize for Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat helped to create the impression that there was really no moral difference between the Israeli and the Palestinian causes. Israel, once its sole occupant, was now forced to share the moral high ground with the Palestinians.

This, in turn, created room for blame games when the negotiations didn't provide the much sought-after peace agreement. And in those blame games, the Palestinians proved to be the more skillful players. They were helped by the second factor which, for want of a better term, we could call "post-modernism." During their university years, the new political and intellectual establishments in The Netherlands had been force-fed a staple diet of post-modernist self-doubt and loathing. Inspired by Edward Said, Dutch political analysts started applying simplistic pseudo-colonialist blueprints to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel was cast in the role of Western colonial oppressor, while the Palestinians were presented as a poor, oppressed people. Media-savvy Palestinians carefully exploited this development.

The Palestinian media strategy of the Intifada was based largely on this neo-colonialist imagery: oppressed Palestinian youths taking on the cold steel tanks of the Israeli "occupying forces" with nothing but sticks and stones. In the eyes of gullible Dutch commentators, these carefully choreographed pictures confirmed the "brutality" of the Israeli "oppressors." Israel was gradually being pushed to the very edge of the moral high ground.

Though damaging in themselves, these developments weren't necessarily irreversible. But instead of standing their ground and trying to fight their way back into the debate, successive Israeli governments have gradually moved towards giving up the moral high ground altogether. We could call this third factor the "empty chair strategy."

During a visit to The Netherlands last Wednesday, Binyamin Netanyahu gave a perfect example of that strategy in an interview with Dutch television. He started by making an eloquent defense of the Israeli cause. But he spoiled it all by suggesting Israel is no longer interested in justifying itself to European audiences. "In Israel," he stated, "we tend to think of Europe as a lost continent. Maybe we shouldn't, but Europeans tend to favor Palestinians over Israel by a margin of two to one." Instead of trying to win over his Dutch audience, he basically told them he couldn't be bothered to engage them in a proper debate.

These factors might explain how Israel got into this mess. More important, however, is the question of how to get out of it. There might not be a single right way to go about it, but one thing is clear: Israel cannot afford to abandon the fight for Dutch (and European) hearts and minds. The consequence of abandoning the public relations battle in The Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe could be disastrous for Israel. The Palestinians would finally seize complete control of the moral high ground, condemning Israel to the status of a quasi-rogue state. Some Dutch commentators are already prepared to label Israel the new South Africa. It shouldn't come to that, and it doesn't have to. Israel still has powerful friends in the old continent. It also still has reliable allies in the class of opinion leaders, people who are willing to take on the apologists of Palestinian violence for the sake of truth, justice, and an old friendship.

Israel simply has to make up its mind. Does it want to stand and fight for European hearts and minds, or fold and face the inevitable consequences of defeat? If it chooses the latter, it should learn to live with the fact that in the court of world opinion (where Europe holds the swing vote) the Palestinians will be able to get away with murder - literally.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Jerusalem Post.


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