Interview: The Life of an Ambassador to Israel
“Israel is a country of immigrants. That makes an ambassador’s life very enjoyable. As a foreigner, one can move in Israeli society without being noticed. Several other reasons have contributed to the fact that Israel was the most enjoyable posting for me and my wife. Among them were the importance of the diplomatic work in Israel and friendships we made with members of the Dutch community.
“Israel has given me quite a lot. I’m not a religious person, but 4 years of living in the country of the Bible has greatly enriched my life. That was also because in Israel one can visit places mentioned in it.”
Bob Hiensch arrived as Dutch Ambassador to Israel in August 2003 and left 4 years later. The Netherlands and Luxembourg – which is politically represented by the Netherlands in Israel – were each during his ambassadorship six months Chairman of the Council of the European Union. He chaired the meetings of the EU countries’ ambassadors in Israel for a year. “In thatposition, one is the Council’s counterpoint of the Israeli government.
“My perspective on Israel changed during my ambassadorship. Israel is seen by Europe as a regional power. Living in Israel one understands that it is a small country surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arabs, most of whom are hostile toward it.
“Another example of a changed perspective concerns the security barrier. Many in the Netherlands and Europe consider it to be scandalous, in particular where it runs across Palestinian territory. At the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I always stressed that this barrier greatly improved the security of Israel. Partly due to it, Palestinian suicide murders have virtually stopped. I pointed out that a resumption of peace negotiations would become possible only if Israel felt itself secure.
“An ambassadorship involves two-way traffic. One cannot limit oneself to elucidate the European and Dutch positions to Israeli authorities. It is also necessary to explain to the Dutch Ministry that there are other ways to look at Israel’s reality. One can say for instance: ‘Look at the issue from that angle as well.’ I always had a feeling that such explanations were appreciated by my ministry. It certainly didn’t do me any damage, as my subsequent posting in India was on a slightly higher rank.
“I considered the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza impressive. In Western environments, it was often dealt with as unimportant, by saying something like, ‘Israel is withdrawing from territories where it shouldn’t have been at all.’ I wrote, rather emphatically to the Ministry in The Hague that for religious Jews and Zionists, this was fundamentally and politically a very important step – a change in paradigm.
“As ambassador, one also looks at what business and other initiatives can be important for one’s own country. It seemed to me that the Netherlands could learn much from Israel concerning science and technology. I was impressed in particular by Israeli investments in venture capital in the hi-tech field.
“Unfortunately, Israel has also left me with some upsetting memories. We arrived in Israel toward the end of the second Intifada while there were still numerous attacks by Palestinians. The day after I arrived in Israel, a bus exploded in Jerusalem which carried Orthodox Jews, among whom were many children.
“One of my saddest experiences was a suicide attack in Ashdod’s port. I went there as representative of the E.U.’s Council. What I saw left a lasting impression on me. The suicide murderer had metal balls in his jacket in order to cause as much damage as possible. I took a number of them to show to other ambassadors.
“On another occasion, we laid a wreath after an attack in Jerusalem where schoolchildren were murdered. Their classmates stood there somberly. They asked us, ‘Why doesn’t the world do anything?’ One stands there with tears in one’s eyes, without having anything to answer. I also think back to the Israeli soldiers of Dutch origin who died in the Lebanon War of 2006. I had contact with their parents who experienced these terrible losses.
“A very pleasant aspect of Israel is its open society and politics. One had access to bureaucrats at short notice and if necessary also to the Minister of Foreign Affairs. One could easily meet parliamentarians as well. Partly through this, one got the feeling that as an ambassador in Israel, one could make a difference in relations between our two countries.
“Before my departure from Israel, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave me a private audience. I never heard that he did this for any other ambassador. I considered that very special and was also quite proud of it.”