By Tariq Shadid
A major political scandal is unfolding in the Netherlands: politician Lodewijk Asscher has made sure over the years that AOW-pension payments to Dutch Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories were kept at their original levels, while all other AOW-pensions of Dutch expats’ were decreased significantly.
His astonishing defense, when he was confronted over this discriminatory conduct was as simplistic as it was irrelevant to the issue: “Holocaust survivors cannot be duped that way”. In reality, only 7 of the 81 recipients of the controversial AOW-pensions are said to be actual Holocaust survivors.
Lodewijk Asscher, himself of Jewish origin and currently Minister of Social Affairs, clearly has abused his position to protect Dutch settlers living in illegal Jewish settlements on confiscated Palestinian land. By doing this, he has been ignoring Dutch policy towards the Israeli settlements, which are held to be illegal in accordance with International Law. He is one of the highest-ranking members of the PvdA-party, historically one of the larger left-wing political parties in Dutch Parliament. Calls for his resignation are increasing in the public sphere, albeit quite cautiously, since the subject of Jewish power in the higher ranks of the Dutch political system is a highly sensitive one.
Investigative journalists Derk Stokmans and Leonie van Nierop nevertheless had the courage to delve deep into the issue, and on June 18 published their report in NRC, one of the major daily newspapers in the Netherlands. They traced the controversy over this issue all the way back to 2002, and discovered that the issue had been avoided and covered up by successive Dutch cabinets ever since that time. They broke it down into ten successive phases, detailing all events surrounding the cover-up of the preferential treatment given to Dutch Jewish settlers in the illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory. What follows is a summary of the remarkable – and quite shocking – findings of their investigations.
In 2000, the Dutch government decided to decrease AOW-pensions for Dutch citizens living outside of the Netherlands, under a new law known as the BEU. When the law was being put into effect in 2002, the leading Dutch Jewish lobby organization CIDI (Center for Documentation and Information on Israel) responded viciously, as did the Israeli government and pro-Israeli political parties such as the CU (Christian Union). They demanded that an exception be made for Jewish expats living in the Occupied Territories.
Mark Rutte, who is currently Prime Minister of the Netherlands, but who was Secretary of State at the time, said that ‘Israel is not the sovereign power in the Occupied Territories’ and that the law would apply to them just the same as it would for other Dutch expats in other countries. However, he promised to postpone the reduction of AOW-pensions for that group for one year, stating that those involved were notified of the changes ‘very late’.
In 2004 there supposedly were ‘legal complications’ which led to another two-year-postponement. Prime Minister Balkenende stated: “There is a powerful lobby being waged for maintaining AOW-pensions in the Occupied Territories, the demand for which was heard in Israel as well as in the Netherlands at a high political level.”
In 2005, Minister of Social Affairs, Aart Jan de Geus, closed a deal with the Palestinian Authority (PA), which in theory put the responsibility for fraud surveillance in the Palestinian territories in the hands of the Palestinian Authority. However, this was clearly a paper tiger: the PA had no authorization from the Israeli occupation authorities to enter the settlements at all. On top of this, a deal with the Palestinian Authority would require an amendment to the law, which would in turn require the approval of the Dutch Parliament. De Geus simply said: “What will go wrong if we just keep paying?” In short, the reduction of AOW-pensions was put into effect in 2006, for all Dutch expats except those living in the Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.
In 2008, Minister of Foreign Affairs Maxime Verhagen, wrote a so-called ‘Blue Letter’ to the Minister of Social Affairs, Piet Hein Donner, after an official visit to Israel. The ‘Blue Letter’, in Dutch politics, is a note that is posted in a blue envelope, and can only be opened by the minister it is addressed to. In this letter, he apparently requested that Donner would find a legal justification for the exemption of Dutch Jewish settlers from reductions prescribed by the BEU law. Donner figured he had a solution: to again hold the Palestinians responsible, but to circumvent previous legal objections by creating a so-called Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).
However, officials of both ministries opposed this solution: the MoU would still require an amendment of the law, which would give the topic unwanted publicity. Verhagen also stated that creating a legal exception would violate Dutch foreign policy with regards to the Israeli settlements, which were considered to be illegal. And again, the topic was left alone, and the payments to the settlers continued, unreduced.
In the period between 2008 and 2014, the Jewish lobby in the Netherlands continued to exert pressure, in an attempt to stifle calls to end the exemption granted exclusively to Dutch Jewish settlers. Organizations such as IOH (Irgun Olei Holland), CIDI, and the Israeli government put tremendous effort into keeping things as they were, pressuring the government with phone calls and letters.
In the meantime, the Dutch organization SVB (Social Insurance Bank), which handles the actual AOW payments and functions independently from the ministry, continued to hand out payments to the settlers without the necessary reduction. According to the investigative journalists, an unnamed source stated that they were well aware of the wishes of the ministry to continue these unreduced payments. “It was a grey area, but one thing was clear: you do not touch Israel.” Another source said: “In the beginning, we couldn’t find out exactly which postal code area applied to the Occupied Territories. If we had really wanted to find out, we could have, but no one undertook that effort.”
In 2013, the SVB was headed by a new administration, which insisted on reopening the discussion on the subject. It issued an order to investigate all pension payments in the Occupied Territories. “We were shocked by what we found. It appeared that 28 out of 49 of the entitled had reported themselves as living in Israel instead of in the Occupied Territories, thereby circumventing the reduction of their AOW pensions.” In January 2014, these fraudulent AOW-recipients were notified by the SVB that their pensions would be reduced in accordance with the law.
However, this decision was met by a barrage of protests at the Dutch embassy in Tel Aviv. This is when Lodewijk Asscher, by then Minister of Social Affairs, entered the scene. He stated that this affair could “affect Dutch-Israeli relations negatively, by creating tensions”, and that at the behest of Dutch Prime Minister Rutte and Minister of Foreign Affairs Timmermans, “solutions are to be researched with maximum creativity.” Nevertheless, after pressure from legal officials from the involved ministries, he reluctantly announced that he would abide by the law, and put the pension reductions into effect.
When push came to shove, on February 21 in 2014, Asscher suddenly backtracked on his decision, after a 15-minute conference with the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Two hours later, AOW-recipients in the illegal Israeli settlements were sent a last-minute notification that no reductions would be applied.
Apparently, this brazen violation of the law proved to be a bridge too far for the SVB. Legal representatives of the SVB presented their objections, for the first time explicitly opposing the wishes of the ministry. The legal team of the Ministry of Social Affairs frantically looked for a solution, which they believed was found in a new AOW-law that would justify an exemption for reduction of AOW-recipients if the reduction was the result of the expiration of an association treaty, or a ‘comparable situation.’ Asscher immediately jumped on this, and wrote a letter to the SVB on July 18th 2014, ordering the SVB to continue payments to recipients in the Occupied Territories, pending finalizations of a ‘transitional arrangement’. However, he also stated that those requesting AOW payments after January 1, 2015, should be given the reduced pension.
Although Asscher would be required to publish this ‘transitional arrangement’ in the ‘Staatscourant’ (Newsbulletin of the State) in order for the SVB to be legally authorized to continue to pay unreduced AOW-pensions, he failed to do so, despite having announced that he would. Nevertheless, the payments continued, unchanged. Recipients were given the good news that no reductions would be put into effect.
On May 7, 2015, an urgent mail was sent to the Foreign Ministry, by the Dutch ambassador in Tel Aviv. A Dutch Holocaust survivor had complained on Israeli television about the reduction in her AOW-payment. This lady had moved to a Jewish settlement in Palestine after January 2015, and was therefore given the reduced pension as required, in accordance with what Asscher himself had ordained. A creative SVB official, however, found a way out: since Asscher had not published his ‘transitional arrangement’ in the Staatscourant, it could be stated that this recipient was insufficiently informed, and could therefore still receive the original AOW-pension without reduction, under the ‘transitional arrangement’. Asscher happily agreed, as well as Jetta Klijnsma, Secretary of State, despite them both being well aware that sufficient information had been given to the recipients. SVB, in an apparent change of heart, had provided a much wanted legal circumvention: they quickly adapted their website, removing the part that informed recipients of the necessary AOW-reduction. With this swift change on the website, the story of ‘insufficient information’ now appeared believable.
Finally, on December 8th, Secretary of State, Klijnsma, stated in a letter to Parliament that victims of the Second World War would never see their AOW-pensions reduced. It also stated that all 81 AOW-recipients living in Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory would continue to receive their full AOW-payment, again using the fabricated excuse of ‘insufficient information’.
Until now, the situation remains unchanged, painting a macabre picture of inequality and preferential treatment on the basis of intense lobbying and power play. Remarkably, it apparently pays off even more to be a Dutch Jewish settler, than to be an average Dutch citizen living in the Netherlands: Dutch Jewish colonists will continue to receive income support on top of their AOW pensions, and additionally, SVB will continue to pay the taxes that are due over the AOW pensions. Stunningly, this means that Dutch Jewish colonists will continue to receive a significantly higher AOW pension than ordinary Dutch citizens living in the Netherlands. This realization understandably has many Dutch citizens riled up, and demanding answers, especially after the exposure of this putrid scandal in the NRC.
It is only now, 6 months later, thanks to the efforts of these brave investigative journalists, that the issue is being discussed widely in the Dutch public sphere. Public opinion is predominantly speaking out against the preferential treatment, and several Dutch political parties, ranging from the right-wing VVD to the left-wing SP, have demanded that Asscher explain himself in Parliament over the issue. Asscher is facing severe criticism for having ordered an independent institution such as the SVB to violate the law. However, caution still prevails: so far, the only somewhat explicit call for the resignation of Asscher over this political fraud has come from the Socialist Party (SP).
Any topic in Dutch politics concerning Israel, just like in many other Western European countries, is bound to generate confusion, caution, undue reverence and careful political maneuvering. If Asscher should be made to pay the price for his irresponsible handling of the issue, it would be the first time in Dutch history that politicians catering to the wishes of the Jewish lobby would face serious embarrassment, or even political damage, resulting from their fraudulent decisions.
Critics refer to the fact that expats living in other ‘regions of controversy’, such as the Western Sahara and Northern Cyprus, are not given this preferential treatment, as is the case with Dutch expats living anywhere else in the world, but in the illegal Israeli settlements. They also refer to the extensive efforts by Asscher to reduce or even abolish AOW-payments to Dutch expats living in Morocco and Turkey, emphasizing the blatantly discriminatory nature of Asscher’s policies. It remains to be seen whether enough public indignation will be generated by this uncouth conducting of affairs, to result in the first political defeat suffered by the Jewish lobby in the history of Dutch politics.
– Tariq Shadid is a surgeon living in the Arab Gulf who has been contributing articles to the Palestine Chronicle for many years. Some of these essays have been bundled in the book ‘Understanding Palestine’, which is available on Amazon.com. He also is the founder of the website ‘Musical Intifada’ featuring his songs about the Palestinian cause, on www.docjazz.com. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.