The Association of Netherlands Municipalities (VNG) canceled a 19 September visit by Israeli mayors because the delegation included leaders of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, igniting a firestorm in the Dutch parliament centered at foreign affairs minister Maxime Verhagen.
The visit of thirty Israeli mayors to the Netherlands was organized by the Israeli branch of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). The aim of the trip was to learn more about public policies and the Dutch system of local, regional and national authorities.
While preparing for the visit, the JDC contacted the embassy of the Netherlands in Tel Aviv which requested that the JDC submit a list of participants. On the list appeared the names of mayors of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank: Beit Aryeh, Har Adar, Kiryat Arba, Oranit, Beit El, Efrat and Elkana. The Israeli news site Ynet reported that when the Union of Local Authorities in Israel requested that VNG assist in organizing the tour, it did not mention that mayors from settlements would be participating (“Holland calls off settlement heads’ visit,” 19 September 2010).
According to Ynet, the head of the Council of Efrat, Oded Revivi, said that the mayors’ visit was originally planned for Spain. However, the tour was called off following the deadly raid on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla at end of May. “The Spanish said we were not welcome there, so we moved to Holland and asked to meet with Holland’s ambassador to Israel. When they asked for the list we realized we had run aground,” said Revivi. The JDC has facilitated similar trips to Denmark, France and China.
VNG clarified its position in a press release, stating that it held strong ties with both the Israeli and the Palestinian Associations of Municipalities. However, the VNG did not want to contribute to the organization of the visit, stressing its neutrality: “The trip is politically sensitive,” explained VNG’s spokesman Arjen Konijnenberg to Dutch magazine Binnenlands Bestuur (“VNG weigert Israëli uit neutraliteit,” 20 September 2010).
The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC) warmly saluted the decision taken by VNG. The BNC emphasized that there are more than 150 settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, housing 475,000 settlers who occupy more than forty percent of the West Bank (“BNC welcomes cancellation of visit by settlement mayors to Netherlands,” 23 September 2010).
After VNG’s decision to call off the visit of the Israeli mayors of settlements, foreign affairs minister Maxime Verhagen came under fire from right-wing parliamentarians.
The largest party in the Netherlands, the right-wing Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) pressed Verhagen on how he would restore friendly relations with Israel. The right-wing Christian Democrats (CDA) also exerted pressure while Geert Wilders, the leader of the second-largest party, the right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV), asked Verhagen to do everything that lies within his power to make sure the planned visit could take place as soon as possible. However, Verhagen reiterated that Israeli settlements are in violation of international law.
The VNG is standing firm in support of human rights and international law, much as it did during the South Africa anti-apartheid movement when the Dutch government was unwilling to hold the apartheid regime to account. Municipalities responded to the call of solidarity organizations, social movements and concerned citizens to take a stand against apartheid and the activities of municipalities were especially directed towards consumer boycott campaigns. Amsterdam declared itself to be an “anti-apartheid city,” supporting the ANC representative for the Netherlands. In 1993, VNG became the host of the national platform of the Dutch municipalities against apartheid.
The VNG’s principled position today is once again paving the way for politicians like Verhagen, known for his sympathies to Israel, to follow.
Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland.