Dutch offered ‘secret thinking space’ for Israeli-Palestinian talks

Dutch stood aside in March when US launched initiative

When Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations broke down in Amman in January 2012, it looked as though the process had run irretrievably into the sand. Behind the scenes, however, new talks – codenamed "Operation Blue-Green" – restarted secretly within weeks, brokered by the Netherlands.

For the Dutch government of the day, a coalition of prime minister Mark Rutte's Liberals and the Christian Democrats, supported from the sidelines by pro-Israeli Geert Wilders and his right-wing Freedom Party, it seemed an extraordinary opportunity to replicate the road to Norway's triumphant Oslo Accords of 1993.

The Dutch saw themselves as "facilitators" rather than mediators, much as the Norwegians had been in the run-up to the signing of the accords, and the iconic September 1993 handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, watched by president Bill Clinton, on the White House lawn.

Twenty years on, however, and the Oslo process, aimed at negotiating a two-state solution, was by common consent, dying of neglect. Israel continued to expand its West Bank settlements, and there was widespread frustration at US president Barrack Obama's failure to make progress during his first term of office.


Ever pragmatic, the Dutch believed they could revive what remained of Oslo, the first face-to-face agreement between the two sides. And between February 2012 and March of this year, that attempt was led by then foreign minister Uri Rosenthal and by Liberal MP and foreign affairs specialist Han ten Broeke, who acted as a special envoy.

Rosenthal and Ten Broeke persuaded Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to fly to the Netherlands for a series of meetings last winter at a secret location – hoping that the anonymity of the talks, away from the gaze of the world’s media, would create space for fresh thinking.

In an attempt to inject substance into the talks, the Dutch attempted to get Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to the negotiating table – but that, it appears, never came close to happening.

However, a Dutch team, including Rosenthal and Ten Broeke, is understood to have had several candid private meetings with Netanyahu in Jerusalem and with Abbas in Ramallah, headquarters of the Palestinian Authority.

Although the substance of the talks themselves remains secret, it is understood there were negotiations which it was hoped would lead to the release by Israel of Palestinian prisoners, and that Russia’s supply of weapons and helicopters to the Palestinians was also raised.

Contrary to expectations, there was not a single leak during the year of talks. Only a handful of employees at the ministry of foreign affairs in The Hague were informed about what was going on, on a strictly need-to-know basis. The first that the vast majority of the Dutch parliament heard about the initiative was in the daily newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, last week ­– as US president Barack Obama arrived for the G8 meeting in Northern Ireland, ironically amid some controversy over plans for talks between the US and the Taliban.

It is unclear whether there was ever any realistic hope of a breakthrough in the Dutch Israeli-Palestinian talks. There have been informed suggestions that both sides – not for the first time – placed preconditions on the table which they fully realised would ultimately lead to deadlock.

In the event, the Dutch decided to stand aside in March when newly appointed US secretary of state John Kerry launched an American initiative aimed at breaking the deadlock, including a $4 billion economic plan, to be headed by the Quartet's Middle East special envoy, Tony Blair, to revitalise the Palestinian economy.

The Dutch government behind last year’s talks was replaced last October by a new Liberal-Labour coalition, still headed by Rutte, but, given the left-wing influence, regarded as more critical of Israel.

Even so, Frans Timmermans – Uri Rosenthal's replacement as foreign minister – has warned that the Netherlands will veto any attempt by the EU to impose sanctions on Israel if it goes ahead with plans for new settlements on a disputed piece of land east of Jerusalem, known as E1 or East 1.

He conceded that while new settlements would “negatively influence the bilateral relationship between the Netherlands and Israel”, the imposition of sanctions had to be prevented because it could fatally hinder efforts to restart the peace talks. “President Obama’s initiative is not just the best, it’s the only initiative to get the peace process moving again,” he insisted. Timmermans clearly knows that in the Middle East, to be pragmatic means to keep talking, at all costs – no matter who is brokering the talks.

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey is a journalist and broadcaster based in The Hague, where he covers Dutch news and politics plus the work of organisations such as the International Criminal Court