The Fear Factor in Holland

As the Netherlands prepares to vote, a tough race is on between rightist Geert Wilders and Labor leader Job Cohen.

Cnaan Liphshiz
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Cnaan Liphshiz

He's worked hard to achieve international renown as an uncompromising anti-Islamist. But Dutch film director-legislator Geert Wilders, 46, is no longer content merely flying the anti-Muslim banner. As Holland nears elections, he's apparently preparing to make some painful concessions.

Job Cohen.

"I hope with all my heart that we can be part of the coalition," Wilders said in an interview for Haaretz in The Hague about his right-wing Party for Freedom, which is expected to clinch some 20 seats in the June 9 parliamentary elections.

Wilders, who rose to fame from relative anonymity six years ago, says he'll avoid appearing "too uncompromising" to voters and potential coalition partners, declaring, "Holland needs a party like ours to govern. We'll try to do our best."

But Wilders' best might not be good enough for at least one leading candidate in the race for the premiership: former Amsterdam mayor and leader of Holland's Labor, Job Cohen. A longtime proponent of interfaith dialogue, Cohen, 63, defines himself as "the opposite" of Wilders, and told Haaretz that keeping his rival out of government "was an element" in his decision to run for office.

Wilders and Cohen are also worlds apart when it comes to their approach to the Middle East and Israel. While Wilders speaks of his love for Israel, Cohen does not rule out imposing sanctions against it, if it does not make progress in the peace process.

March polls predicted Wilders would win 30 seats in parliament, which made him the leading candidate for race for the premiership, which started in February after the Dutch cabinet fell, due to coalition disputes over military activity in Afghanistan.

Explaining his party's drop in the polls, Wilders cites its performance in local elections in early March. Despite becoming the largest party in the city of Almere and the second largest in The Hague, the Party for Freedom had to move to the opposition in both councils, after insisting in coalition talks on a headscarf ban in public buildings.

Wilders: "People thought: 'Why vote for Wilders nationally if again his party doesn't go into the government.' The other parties were also uncompromising, but we paid a high price for it."

According to Cohen, Wilders and his party "don't accept other cultures in our country. But they are there, they're different and we have to cooperate. It's difficult but we have to have a dialogue to live in peace."

"With respect to questions of integration - we are absolutely in the opposite position," Cohen said about Wilders, who also favors stopping construction of mosques and ending immigration from Muslim countries.

While Wilders does not conceal his disdain from Cohen's policies - "Cohen is an Islam lover, and I despise everything that has to do with Islamic ideology," he declares - he does have positive things to say about him. Cohen's decision to head Labor, "changes the whole political map and has elevated Labor enormously," Wilders says, adding that the party "showed it has some backbone left" when insisting that Holland end its presence in Afghanistan. Wilders' party also agreed with that stance, and thus the cabinet of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende fell.

The Party for Freedom may find an easier coalition partner in the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, the leading contender in the elections. In post-recession Holland, this liberal party's support of a free market economy to encourage growth is a popular alternative to Labor's social-oriented plan. And its leader, Mark Rutte, has not ruled out a coalition with Wilders' party.

According to recent polls, Rutte's party will sweep 38 seats, compared with 29 for Labor, 25 for the ruling Christian Democrats and 17 for Wilders' party.

For his part, Wilders chose to mount an aggressive negative campaign against Cohen - perhaps because any vote Cohen loses may bring the Liberal Party closer to government, and the Party for Freedom along with it.

Wilders told Haaretz that, "My whole campaign is focused on Cohen in an attempt to expose what Holland under Cohen will be like."

Meanwhile, Wilders is making some Dutch Muslims feel threatened. "Radicalism creates more radicalism," says Ahmed Markoush, a Moroccan-born member of the Labor Party. "People from the Muslim community feel fear."

Wilders mentions the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Amsterdam in January 2009, during Cohen's term as mayor, after Israel's invasion of Gaza. When demonstrators shouted "Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas" at some rallies - "police did not react, sending out the message that this sort of behavior was acceptable, instead of making arrests," Wilders complains.

However, some prominent members of the Jewish community maintain that Cohen's support of intercommunal dialogue has helped ease tensions. "Cohen believes in compromise but can also employ strict measures to ensure order," says Hadassa Hirschfeld, former deputy director of the Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel, an NGO which monitors anti-Semitism in the Netherlands.

Others from the Jewish community - to whom Cohen belongs only nominally - maintain that the recurrence of anti-Semitic incidents following Israel's actions shows such initiatives have failed.

"Cohen is known for drinking tea with the Muslims instead of properly protecting the Jewish community," says Gidi Markuszower, an associate of Wilders and a well-known figure in the Jewish community. "People are afraid to wear a skullcap on the street for fear of attack, and this is the result of violence by Muslim immigrants.."

Wilders and Cohen's very different approaches to the Middle East also affect the Jewish community's attitudes. Wilders lived in a moshav in the 1980s for one year, describes himself as an Israel lover and says Israel is the West's "first line of defense" in the "fight against jihad."

Cohen's position is fuzzier. Last year, several members of Dutch Labor published a manifesto urging the government to impose economic sanctions against Israel if Jerusalem "thwarts the peace process" with the Palestinians. When asked if he supports this, Cohen told Haaretz: "I think both sides should play an important role in trying to solve problems."



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