FM Verhagen: I have come here to see also what the Netherlands and the European Union can do to support the peace process and guarantee also a lasting settlement.

 Joint press conference with Israeli FM Tzipi Livni and Dutch FM Maxime Verhagen


FM Livni and Dutch FM Verhagen speaks with local residents during tour of Sderot (Photo: Flash90)

FOREIGN MINISTER LIVNI: I would like to welcome to Israel a friend, Foreign Minister Verhagen. We just had a long discussion on the bilateral relationship between Israel and the Netherlands which is based on friendship, understanding, mutual interests and the same values, I would like to say.

Before we shared all these ideas – not only on the bilateral track but also in reference to the situation in the region, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and the threat coming from Iran and other extremists in the region – we also had a tour. I think that there is a difference between understanding the conflict from abroad and seeing Israel as, in a way, an embarrassingly small place which faces terrorism coming from the Gaza Strip. We visited Sderot – a small place in Israel which is constantly, on a daily basis, under attack from the Gaza Strip. We met some of the citizens there who, informally, just came and said there is stress, frustration. I also expressed our responsibility and the need to give an answer to these Israeli citizens.

Our strategy is a dual strategy. On one hand there is the ongoing process and negotiations with the pragmatic Palestinian leaders. We have President Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Ala is the chief negotiator on the Palestinian side. My colleague is going to meet them tomorrow, and I’m sure that they will share their perspective with him. But the idea is to work on the bilateral tracks between Israel and the Palestinian pragmatic leaders to find a way to end the conflict, to reach a peace treaty, giving an answer to all the issues that are open between Israel and the Palestinians. Simultaneously there is a need to change the situation on the ground. In the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank the situation is complicated but there is an understanding, based on the Annapolis understanding, that at the end of the road. in reaching an agreement, we need to see whether the situation on the ground has changed, and any implementation of the future agreement is subject to the Roadmap.

The Gaza Strip is a problem. The Gaza Strip is controlled by Hamas, which is a designated terrorist organization not only in Israel but also in Europe. They abuse the fact that they control the Gaza Strip, a place from which Israel withdrew. We left the Gaza Strip, we dismantled all the settlements in the Gaza Strip, we took our forces out, yet we are being attacked on a daily basis from the Gaza Strip. We need to address this challenge and to address these terror attacks and to act against terrorism coming from the Gaza Strip.

Thank you for coming. For me it was enlightening and I hope that it was helpful also for a better understanding of the complicated situation in the region. Thank you.

FOREIGN MINISTER VERHAGEN: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, I really appreciate being in Israel for the second time as Foreign Minister. Israel and the Netherlands enjoy very warm and friendly relations and we have discussed today a number of issues, as I did earlier today also with Prime Minister Olmert. As friends do, we exchanged views on a range of issues openly and honestly and this, as I’m sure, will make it also possible to strengthen the ties between our two countries, as we discussed also specifically our bilateral relations.

Of course I have come here to see also what the Netherlands and the European Union can do to support the peace process and guarantee also a lasting settlement. And although the outlines are more or less clear, a safe and secure Jewish state and a viable Palestinian state alongside also the 1967 borders, it’s of course clear that only the parties themselves can decide how a final settlement should look like.

I think that Minister Livni and Prime Minister Olmert showed great courage when they came to Annapolis to search for an end to the conflict. And of course now we urge also the parties to build on their commitment, and I hope Israel will continue to have the courage to fulfill its obligations under the Roadmap.

In this respect we of course discussed the necessity to stop expansion of settlements on the West Bank, East Jerusalem, which might not only be worrisome to us but which might also frustrate the real improvements on the grounds, and I really welcome the open discussion we have on this issue and I also welcome Israel’s commitment, as Minister Livni made quite clear, to dismantle illegal outposts. This would be the first step that would increase also the commitment to the follow-up of Annapolis considerably.

Today, as Minister Livni said, I’ve seen with my own eyes not only how small the region is but also what a consequence it has if there are terrorist activities. Today in Sderot I was able to witness myself the terrible results of the continuing rockets and mortar attacks, the fear of innocent people, innocent civilians living there with their children trying to just have a normal life, and I saw their fear, too. It’s absolutely clear that there is no excuse for these despicable acts of terrorism. It’s absolutely clear that also the Netherlands strongly condemn those attacks. And it, once again, makes clear and proves that there is no place, according to my view, for Hamas at the negotiating table.

Before we can speak to Hamas, it must recognize Israel. It must renounce violence and hand over the authority in Gaza to the Palestinian structures, and the Netherlands will strictly adhere to this position also within the European Union.

We have of course also discussed the situation in Gaza, and I understand Israel needs to take measures to ensure its safety but I encourage, of course, also Israel to do so in a proportional way. The people of Gaza, according to my view, should not be punished collectively for these despicable attacks. Poverty, darkness and suffering will only breed more terrorists and more attacks, so therefore, although I fully understand Israel’s need to protect themselves and to act against terrorist attacks, rocket attacks from Gaza, I urge them of course also to react in a proportional way and to have also for the civilians in Gaza an alternative for terrorism, and the alternative is only to have a peaceful way through the lines of Annapolis, through the lines also the Israeli government is committed to. Thank you.

Q: [translated from Hebrew] Foreign Minister, we hear that Abu Mazen announced this morning in Ramallah that he will not continue the talks with Israel due to the killing in Gaza. He says it is impossible to sit at a negotiating table with Israel while such things are being done. How will Israel react to this?
And another question: we hear that the Defense Minister has given instructions to stop, or to obtain his approval for each new construction project in East Jerusalem. Is this a new government policy? Is the intention also to freeze construction in East Jerusalem?

FOREIGN MINISTER LIVNI: [translated from Hebrew] As for your first question, we made a strategic decision, Israel and the Palestinians, to act in a complementary and parallel manner. One is to conduct negotiations and try to reach understandings. The negotiations and their outcome will be subject to changes on the ground. Changes on the ground, in our eyes, are the control exerted by an effective, legitimate government over all the territories of the Palestinian Authority, with the capability of fighting terror and being a responsible ruler, so that we can allow them establish a state.

It was clear from the start that the negotiations would be conducted in the shadow of a war against terror. It was clear from the start that Israel’s policy is based on a strong desire to achieve peace with no less of a strong commitment to provide security for the citizens of Israel. I clarified this point in advance, and I reiterated this idea at meetings with the Palestinians and international meetings. This is our responsibility and it will give us the strength needed to rise above the criticism that will come, also from within Israel, incidentally. I’m very sorry to say there will also probably be cases in which some people will ask me not to enter the negotiating room.

We need to make progress in the talks. These negotiations are not a favor that we’re doing for the Palestinians, or a favor that the Palestinians are doing for us. They are in the best common interests of Israel and the pragmatic elements in the Palestinian Authority. We have an interest in advancing them, we need to do it while at the same time stopping illegitimate acts and making a clear distinction between the pragmatic elements and the terrorist elements, between the West Bank and Gaza. That’s the policy.

I know that it’s not always pleasant for them, in the face of the Palestinian public, to enter a room with Israelis while Israel is attacking terrorists. But this is part of the rules by which we are conducting ourselves.

Israel will not stop its war against terror or its need to defend the citizens of the State of Israel for the sake of the negotiations. We believe that this is a combined process, which at the end of the road is meant to provide security for the citizens of Israel as well as a better life for the Palestinians, including a state if Israel’s security requirements are met. So even if I understand the need to express things in a way that perhaps complies with certain expectations, my decision – and our decision – is clear: the negotiating rooms need to be sealed against these calls. It’s not easy, but it’s a leadership decision.

As for your second question, from the outset there was a decision to work in a way that gives the government greater control over what is happening. This isn’t related to territorial questions or our insistence in the negotiations on certain places, but rather whether the government has lost some measure of control in this area or whether it can still decide when and how and where construction will take place. So in my eyes there is one clear statement: it is the government that will determine where and when and how, and of course no conclusions should be drawn from this concerning our sovereignty or our wish to conduct negotiations on anything connected with Jerusalem.

Q: I would like to ask the same question to both ministers, which is would you define the present situation in Gaza as collective punishment or not?

FOREIGN MINISTER LIVNI: Israel’s policy is not to punish the Palestinian people for the acts of the leaders of all the terrorist organizations. We have, as I explained, a dual policy, a dual strategy. We are working with the pragmatic leaders while simultaneously we need to give an answer to those Israeli civilians who are under constant daily attacks from the Gaza Strip. Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in order to create a vision of peace in the Gaza Strip. We dismantled settlements even though it was not easy, regardless of what everyone thinks about the idea of settlement in the West Bank. We decided to do so; and we did so. We took our forces out in order to give the Palestinians not only hope but also the understanding that they can create something without Israeli soldiers in their own neighborhoods and cities. What we got in return is terror.

The division between extremists and moderates or pragmatics within Palestinian society also has a territorial dimension. In fact Gaza is controlled by Hamas. The pragmatic leaders have no influence in the Gaza Strip. The terrorists are hiding among civilians, and while our policy is to target these terrorists, it is easy to see how they abuse the civilian population in order to target Israel and then go back to these places.

Clearly, to promote the vision of peace, we need the Palestinians to understand that they cannot get political gains through terrorism. Hamas doesn’t represent the national aspirations of the Palestinians, but an extreme ideological part which cannot accept the right of non-Muslims to live in the region. It’s not even about the existence of the State of Israel as such. And, yes, the policy is to give the Palestinians the understanding that when these are these terrorists are their leaders, there is no hope with these leaders. The hope comes with the pragmatic leaders. But, no, we don’t punish the population and we try to keep the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip in accordance to the level which is needed in terms of humanitarian concerns.

Basically, I think that Israel is the only place in the world in which we supply electricity for use by these terrorists against Israel. We opened the passages to humanitarian needs, not because of the requirements of the international community, but because this is according to our values. But at the end of the day, we need to give an answer to these terrorists that are using and abusing the civilian population. They are there in the Gaza Strip, the Gaza Strip is being controlled by them, and of course life is not easy when you’re being controlled by a terrorist organization. And, by the way, Hamas can change the lives of the Palestinians in a minute just by stopping terrorism. It can ease their lives in a minute. They know that, by the way. They are not willing to take the certain steps which are needed to do so.

FOREIGN MINISTER VERHAGEN: Yes, well, the question was also related to me. As I said, according to my view, it’s important to give the ordinary Palestinian civilians an alternative, an alternative for terrorism, an alternative for Hamas. They should see that if they support the peaceful way, they support the way of Annapolis, that their future will be improved. And according to my view, it’s better to show them the alternatives also on the grounds than to have a situation as we’ve seen for example last night. I don’t discuss whether the closure of the electricity was due to the fact of an act of the Hamas government or due to the fact that there was not enough diesel or electricity possible for the functioning of these factories.

But what I would like to underline, which is what I underlined also in my meeting with Tzipi Livni, is that if you show, for example, possibilities of improvement, as we’ve seen when the Kerem Shalom border was opened for the exports, that it pays off to have this peaceful way instead of a terrorist way. If we can improve the day-to-day living conditions of the Palestinian civilians also in Gaza, then they see that there is an alternative, and therefore I again ask for the reopening of the Kerem Shalom borders and also to have the possibility of an expansion of the exports. According to my view, these positive steps are more effective to get Palestinian civilians in Gaza away from supporting Hamas and a situation where they have to suffer, not only from the Hamas government but also due to the fact that they live in Gaza.