AMSTERDAM, Netherlands – Shimon Peres recently concluded a successful state visit to the Netherlands, during which he met with all the local somebodies.
When it comes to Israeli PR, no one can match our very accomplished president, the very symbol of the good, old, affable, lovable Land of Israel. In the Netherlands, he has long been a beloved, admired figure. Beyond the usual diplomatic flattery, he was showered with praise for his dedication and for being a visionary and a peacemaker.
But behind the honeyed words was the hint of a possible new trend. It came to light during an interview attended by university students, who were allowed to ask Peres questions.
It was obvious that the moderator and most of the audience regarded Peres with respect and affection - he received a standing ovation both upon his entrance and his exit.
But some of the questions were tough, even harsh, and any attempt to answer them with evasion or flowery rhetoric was met with dogged persistence.
The narrative Peres related was familiar, at its center was the ethos of a small country surrounded by enemies but seeking peace. When asked, early on, about his most difficult political decision, he ignored the question and pitched into his story: When the United Nations decided on partition into two states we agreed and the Arabs didn’t, we had hard times, we had to fight for survival, we always continued to strive toward peace, etc., etc.
The question went unanswered, but the narrative foundations were laid.
When asked why Israel continues to build in the West Bank settlements which are an obstacle to peace, Peres brought up the missiles fired from the Gaza Strip, adding that in any event no serious construction was being done in the settlements, there was more talk than action.
He then heaped praise on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for adopting the two-state solution and ended with a declaration about the freedom and equality the Palestinians will enjoy.
The next person reminded Peres of his role in the Oslo Accords and asked whether, in light of the current situation - occupation and separation - he still believed in the declaration of principles.
“Yes,” Peres said emphatically, before returning to safer ground: We’ve had wars, achieved two peace treaties and returned everything to the partner states, we even returned the Gaza Strip, is this what’s called occupation? The friendly, pleasant interviewer nevertheless noted that many people do not see things the way Israel does.
Particularly edifying was Peres’ reaction to the quoting of remarks by Desmond Tutu about the distress he felt during a visit to Israel and the territories reminding him of what South Africa’s blacks had endured.
Peres declared that Tutu was his friend but characterized his remarks as disinformation and ignorance. He explained (again) that from the start we were forced to defend ourselves and employ security measures. But discrimination? Never, that’s just impossible. How could we? We are the historical victims of discrimination, of the Holocaust, of constant anti-Semitism. Israel is entirely committed to justice and equality.
That is the Israel Peres knows, the only one he is willing to recognize, the Israel he can explain. When someone says something he sees as challenging this ethos he seems to experience a cognitive dissonance, the only recourse for which is an a priori rejection of the criticism: Of course, Israel is not discriminatory, because it wouldn’t behave that way. It’s inconceivable.
My wife, a Dutch woman in her 30s, had been looking forward to the interview, but a few minutes in she wrote me: ”Peres is disappointing, he evades questions and uses every possible cliché.” She later added: “Is that really his argument? ‘We suffered enough,’ and ‘We’re the historical victims of discrimination so we couldn’t possibly be guilty of it’?” And to sum up: “I had hoped for more.” On the other hand, a few minutes after the interview ended she sent an update: ‘Well, my mother thought he was terrific.”
Generations of Netherlanders have distilled primeval feelings of guilt and admiration for the miracle that came to life in Israel into near-total support for the state.
But a new generation, one that is less susceptible to the dictates of historical guilt, is increasingly stepping into positions of power and influence.
The almost automatic commitment to supporting Israel and its every position is yielding to more critical attitudes.
We are not talking here of “pro-Palestinians” or “new anti-Semites,” as Israelis sometimes find it convenient to label them. Their sensibility is different. What was once fine is barely satisfactory today, and soon it will be unacceptable.
What is needed now, as Peres himself has pointed out so well, in a different context, is not fine rhetoric but rather a change in facts on the ground. Actions, not sweet words.
Perhaps it is precisely this kind of specific feedback that could help Israel far more than flattery and unconditional love.
The author is justice sector adviser at the Hague Institute for the Internationalization of Law.