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Maxime Verhagen, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, Address to the AJC Annual Meeting Gala
Maxime Verhagen, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, Address to the AJC Annual Meeting Gala

Washington, DC, 29 April 2010

Thank you, Mr Sideman.

Thank you very much for inviting me to join you here in Washington for the annual meeting of your Committee. I am delighted to be in the company of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos. It's good to see you. Ladies and gentlemen, it's good to see you all! Thank you for acknowledging the efforts of the Dutch government: our work in  human rights promotion and our active commitment to helping ensure a lasting peace in the Middle East – two cornerstones of Dutch foreign policy. And thank you for allowing me to share a few thoughts with you in response to the award that has just been presented to me. I am honoured and humbled by this gesture.

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
Children are wise to learn from their parents.

I grew up in Maastricht, in the Southern part of the Netherlands, not far from the American War Cemetry in Margraten. My father often took his three young sons there. And I will never forget how I felt, seeing these thousands and thousands of white crosses. My father told us about the courage and bravery of these American soldiers, who died for our, for my freedom.
My father was the son of a Buchenwald concentration camp prisoner, and had himself been forced to go into hiding during the War. So he knew what it felt like to live without freedom, under oppression, and in constant fear. He was eternally grateful for the liberation of the Netherlands. And he impressed this gratitude on us, his children. He taught us that liberty cannot be taken for granted. That it had been bitterly fought for. And that it had come at a great cost: the loss of many young lives – including so many young American lives. Next week, the Netherlands will again celebrate its liberation, now sixty-five years ago. My father's lessons are as relevant today as when I was a boy. Good is stronger than evil. What is wrong can be made right. Through willpower, dedication and sacrifice.

This message has resonated throughout my professional and personal life. It explains why I decided to make human rights the centrepiece of Dutch foreign policy. It's not only our moral obligation to do so; it's also in our own interest to make sure that history doesn't repeat itself, and to continue the struggle for freedom in today's world. I am grateful to my father for instilling this important life lesson in me.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Parents are also well-advised to listen to their children.

And politicians, too, should heed the call of the world's children. It is their future we are shaping, and we can draw inspiration from their optimism and hope. It was Anne Frank who wrote that everyone has a piece of good news inside them. And that the good news is that you don't know how great you can be! How much you can love. What you can accomplish. And what your potential is. If Anne Frank had the wisdom to write this at the age of fifteen, why don't we have the courage to live up to her words at the age of forty, fifty, sixty?

The Middle East Peace Process is in dire need of great men and women. Men and women who denounce hatred and foster compassion. Not just for their own people, but for others, too. Men and women who can accomplish things. Men and women with potential. The potential to lead their people away from misery, towards a better future. A lasting peace.

And that means: back to the negotiating table!

Last week, I offered Israel my congratulations on its sixty-second anniversary. I said that the state of Israel was built on a dream; a dream that long pre-dated the nightmare of the Shoah but that only came true after the horrors of the Second World War. A dream that kept Jews going in their darkest hours, a dream the Jewish people embraced even more firmly when dawn finally broke. Israel is a dream come true – and we all know how seldom that happens. We should cherish the joy of realising that dream.

That is precisely why I stressed that it is first and foremost in Israel's own national interest to re-engage with the peace process and work towards a two-state solution. I said that because I feel a close bond with the people of Israel. I consider myself a friend of Israel, and I am devoted to Israel's future. A secure future. And to guarantee this security, the two-state solution is indispensable. But if things continue the way they are, Israel risks becoming one state for two peoples, with a Jewish minority. This would compromise the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, which is what it was established to be.

This is certainly not a new insight. Two weeks ago, you, Madam Secretary, said that peace has to happen, ‘because Israel's long-term future as a secure and democratic Jewish state depends upon it'.  And Deputy Prime Minister Barak, last week in a radio interview on Memorial Day, you stated that ‘the world is not willing to accept the expectation that Israel will rule another people for decades more'. I agree.

The growing influence of Iran further increases the urgency of peace talks. An agreement between Israelis and Palestinians and between Israel and its neighbours would certainly be a major setback for President Ahmadinejad. He has flatly denied Israel's right to exist, going as far as to say that it should be wiped off the face of the earth. And unfortunately, these monstrous remarks do not come from some minor figure on the global stage. This is the president of a country actively pursuing nuclear ambitions. A country that supports terrorist organisations. A country that denies its own citizens the right to freedom of opinion, expression and religion. A country that does not hesitate to strike against those citizens when they march in the streets of Tehran, asking for no more than respect for their basic rights. Iran is a threat to its own people, whose human rights are grossly violated. Iran is a threat to Israel, to the Middle East and to the rest of the world. Therefore I completely agree with the American Jewish Committee's call for action against the negative impact of Iranian policies on stability and security in the Middle East. Iran will have to comply with the demands of the UN Security Council and the IAEA regarding their nuclear programme. I am in favour of tougher sanctions on the part of the Security Council. And if this proves impossible, I would like to see the US and the EU adopting stricter sanctions together. At the same time, we must support democratic, reform-minded forces in Iranian society, so their efforts can take root. The world must not take the Iranian threat lightly. We must take our responsibility.

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Concluding a comprehensive peace agreement will take willpower. It will take dedication.  Painful concessions will have to be made on both sides. Compromise is the only way to safeguard legitimate interests.

There is a clear indication of what both parties want and need. There is even an emerging consensus on the main points of an agreement. An agreement that would end the conflict and recognise the legitimate aspirations of both parties: the Palestinian goal of an independent, viable state based on the '67 lines, with agreed swaps; and Israel's goal of a Jewish state with secure, recognised borders that meet its security requirements. There would be no large-scale return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, and Jerusalem would be the capital of two states.

I fully support President Obama's efforts to get the peace process back on track. Finding a solution cannot be done without American involvement and commitment, and the European Union will stand side by side with the United States to work towards a lasting peace. Within the EU, I have consistently called for contingency planning, so that both parties know that the international community stands ready to guarantee the implementation of any peace settlement they would agree to. That includes providing Israel with the necessary security guarantees, including by way of a strong international military presence. It also entails ongoing support for the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

It is important that the entire international community send the same strong signal: affirming their willingness to support and back up any peace agreement the parties arrive at, and pledging their determination not to allow radical elements to derail the process. There is no place at the negotiating table for Hamas as long as it refuses to recognise Israel and renounce violence. We must never allow terrorism to assume the veneer of legitimacy. At the same time, the international community is right to expect something from the Israeli government too. The present settlement policy is completely counterproductive and casts doubt on Israel's good faith. It cannot continue along current lines.

A united international commitment should encourage parties to move beyond what has so far been possible. We are doing all we can to achieve a common position; involving the Quartet members, Russia, the EU and the UN, and, most importantly, the Arab world. I think we must be as inventive and persuasive as we can in helping the parties come to terms. At the end of the day, an agreement – indeed peace itself – can only work when the parties and the people themselves set their minds to it.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Had Anne Frank survived, she would now be eighty years old. She was enchanted by the idea that nobody needs to wait before starting to improve the world. 

Would she still have been?

I think she would.

Because it is never too late to change the course of history. If only we can allow our hearts to speak. Through willpower, dedication and sacrifice. If we do, this would mean even more than the good news Anne Frank spoke of so optimistically. It would be the best news of all. Especially for a new generation of Israeli and Palestinian children, who still have their future ahead of them.

Thank you.