Israel finds allies in Europe’s Christian fundamentalists

Anti-Muslim firebrand Geert Wilders is among Israel’s right-wing friends in Europe. (Koen Van Weel/ANP)

Flip through any issue of a major newspaper from the past decade and it is a safe bet you will be confronted with a warning about the dangers of religious extremism. So how could the mainstream media have failed to notice the growing influence of fundamentalists on the European Union’s relations with one of its nearest neighbors: Israel? The explanation might lie in how the zealots in question are not Islamic but Christian.

Since September last year, the European Parliament’s official delegation to the Knesset has been headed by veteran Dutch politician Bastiaan Belder. This has meant that the chief interlocutor with Israel for the EU’s only directly-elected institution has been a man who makes Dick Cheney look moderate.

Belder belongs to the Political Reformed Party (known by its Dutch acronym SGP). Within the Netherlands, this Calvinist grouping has long been controversial because of its opposition to women’s suffrage. Even though it has been forced to reverse its male-only membership rule by a 2003 court ruling, it has not yet fielded a female candidate in an election.

The party’s literal interpretation of scriptures is especially pronounced in its policy on the Middle East. Adhering strictly to a Christian Zionist ideology, it views the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 as the fulfillment of a Biblical prophecy. “For the SGP solidarity with the Jewish people is not negotiable,” one of its key documents on foreign affairs states. “Therefore, we are committed to a secure existence for Israel in the territory that God has assigned to the Jewish people. The Jews are the ‘beloved of the father’s will,’ to which the Lord assigned their country, as is written in the Old Testament.”

Intriguingly, the same document displays a profound anti-Semitic bias. It identifies Judaism as a heresy and argues that Jews must convert to Christianity if they are to evade damnation. Islam, meanwhile, is described as a threat that needs to be “countered” because it “keeps people away from salvation.”

In his 11 years as a member of the European Parliament (MEP), Belder has consistently defended Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. Frequently, his rhetoric is indistinguishable from the propaganda peddled by the Israeli diplomats with whom he is in regular contact. During a visit to Jerusalem in February, he contended that Israel would have nothing to fear if it set up an “independent” investigation into the conduct of its attacks on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009. “When you are convinced that you did everything to prevent civilian casualties, when you have the moral high ground, show it and no one can blame you,” he said.

Under Belder’s chairmanship, meetings of the Parliament’s delegation to Israel have generally been one-sided affairs. Last December, the main guest speaker at one such meeting was Emanuele Ottolenghi, then the Brussels representative of the American Jewish Committee, one of the most powerful pro-Israel lobby groups in Washington. Ottolenghi has penned a book (Under a Mushroom Cloud, published in 2009) and several pamphlets that make the case for waging war against Iran over its alleged efforts to develop nuclear weapons. By contrast, Ottolenghi has portrayed Israel’s nuclear capability as necessary for stability in the Middle East, claiming that Arab leaders sleep soundly under the shadow of Israels nuclear umbrella.

Fortunately, Belder has not had everything his own way. Last year the Parliament’s delegation to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) sought a discussion with him on how its work could be coordinated with that of his delegation. Initially, Belder turned down this request but when pressured by other MEPs, he agreed in the past few months that joint meetings between the two delegations could be held. Proinsias de Rossa, an Irish MEP who chairs the delegation to the PLC, said he had made “various overtures” to Belder and was “brushed aside for a long time.” However, Belder eventually accepted the principle that each delegation should be kept informed of the other’s activities and “we are now cooperating very well,” de Rossa added. Belder did not respond to my requests for a comment.

While only a handful of Dutch politicians espouse the same religious views as Belder, his unwavering support for Israel has been echoed by larger parties in the Netherlands. Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen, a center-right Christian Democrat, will be garlanded as a “friend of Israel” in June when the American Jewish Committee presents him with an award. Verhagen has claimed that Israel “has no desire to see people in Gaza suffer.” His comments were made when he travelled to the southern Israeli city of Sderot last year; Verhagen refused to venture across the nearby border crossing into Gaza to see for himself if Israel was making its 1.5 million inhabitants suffer.

Without doubt, the Netherlands’ blood-splattered history helps explain some of the enduring attitudes towards Israel — 70 percent of the Dutch Jewry were wiped out in the Holocaust. “After World War II, there was quite a lot of enthusiasm [in the Netherlands] about the small State of Israel,” said Henri Veldhuis, a Calvinist theologian and a Palestine solidarity campaigner. “These new heroes fueled our faith. Some years later, there was guilt about the Holocaust and how most Jews in Holland were killed or deported. These deep feelings about faith and guilt are still quite strong in our churches.”

Veldhuis, whose work for Palestinian rights has led one of his co-religionists to dub him a “follower of Hitler,” says that the essential problem with the SGP and the like-minded ChristenUnie (the two parties contested last year’s European Parliament election as a combined force) is that they view their reading of the Bible as more important than international law. “For me, this is quite shocking,” he said.

A general election is scheduled to take place in the Netherlands in June after the Labor Party recently walked out of the government in protest at efforts to prolong the Dutch involvement in the war in Afghanistan. Many pundits expect the flamboyant anti-Muslim firebrand Geert Wilders to perform strongly in this summer’s poll. The electoral list that he leads includes several candidates who have previously worked for the pro-Israel lobby in the Netherlands. Among them are a former Dutch representative for Likud, the party of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Nonetheless, the increasingly brutal nature of the occupation of Palestine has caused some Dutch politicians to reconsider their support for Israel, according to Ghada Zeidan from United Civilians for Peace, a Utrecht-based human rights group. “People are outraged here,” she said. “Even some of the more conservative political parties like the VVD [one of the main opposition parties], who are seen in Holland as ‘friends of Israel’ are asking questions. I can see some movement at the moment but I also should say that the Israel lobby in general remains rather strong.”

It would be comforting if Belder could be dismissed as unrepresentative of mainstream Dutch or European society. Yet he has proven to be an astute networker at a time when Israel’s political establishment is eagerly courting allies in the Brussels institutions with a view to deepening its diplomatic and economic ties with the EU. His close links with Israeli officialdom indicates that he is appreciated as someone who slavishly defends Israel’s agenda in an assembly it frequently regards as hostile. However extreme he may be, it would be foolish to ignore him.

David Cronins book Europe’s Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation will be published in November 2010 by Pluto Press.