There has been a pervading sense of friendly relations between the Netherlands and Israel for many years now. Any Jerusalemite will, no doubt, be appreciative of the tulips sent over annually to the capital, courtesy of the Dutch government, to adorn the western entrance to the city and spots near the municipality.And there seems to be an increasing number of cultural events from the Netherlands taking place here on a pretty regular basis. Dutch artist Anke Huyben made a noteworthy contribution to the “XX Feminine Body Layers” exhibition, which closed at Arie Klang House in Ashdod recently, and popular author Anna Enquist was over here in March to talk about her work. All of her novels are translated into Hebrew and sell well here.Add to that April’s four-concert national tour by the Eindhoven-based Philips Symphony Orchestra, and it becomes abundantly clear that the Netherlands is keen to share its artistic riches with us.
Ambassador Gilles Beschoor Plug is, naturally, in favor of the influx of Dutch artistic endeavor, although he has numerous avenues of professional interest here. Beschoor Plug took up his position in Tel Aviv around 18 months ago. He came here with some pretty hefty regional baggage and a better-than-average handle on the general state of affairs in these parts. His bio features postings to Abu Dhabi and Damascus, so he is clearly no stranger to the Middle East.“Not at all,” Beschoor Plug concurs, adding that he has accrued quite a bit of home-based regional experience, too.“Before I came here I spent four years as director for the Middle East at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in that capacity I traveled through the whole region as well, including in Israel.”That gives 50-something Beschoor Plug some idea of the local modus operandi, although he says there is plenty more to sink his teeth into.“I should say that one never knows enough to really be an expert on this region. But yes, it’s very interesting for me to be here, after having spent some years in the Arab world.”That imbues the ambassador with greater insight into regional dynamics – and how things work “on the other side” at ground level – than most of us could hope to achieve.“To my regret, I notice that on a daily basis. These people are your neighbors and yet it’s virtually impossible for you to get in contact with them, and vice versa.”This is not so for Beschoor Plug and his diplomatic ilk, although he says it is something of a double-edged sword.“I indeed consider that a privilege, but also a responsibility. I’d say, to try to explain to people here in what way they are being looked upon by Arabs and vice versa – to be able to explain to my Arab friends how Israel looks upon its relationship with Arab countries.”That, Beschoor Plug feels, is an important factor in working toward the ever-elusive settlement of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.“It is, I think, part of the eventual solution in this part of the world – the peace process – that one is able to understand the fears and the joys of the other person.”That, of course, smacks of utopianism, and a wish for a better, apolitical world, but some would argue that the politicians don’t appear to be making much progress, and perhaps we should try a different route to peace-mongering.Beschoor Plug is, for example, all for talking about Gadi, Hassan, Dalia and Aisha, rather than talking in stock, faceless “Israeli” and “Arab” epithets.“That’s why my embassy tries, as much as possible, to initiate people-to-people contacts across borders, not only here but everywhere in the world, across lines, across divisions, people-to-people contacts. That is always the best way to ameliorate a rift or a difficult situation.”It is, he says, all about frank exchanges of views and two-way communication. “You should meet the other person, talk and listen – listening is very important – and try to understand the way he or she views yourself, and the other way round.”Part of the embassy’s border-leaping endeavor follows cultural lines, including bringing over Dutch artists who perform in Jerusalem and then pop over to Ramallah to give a show. “That happens a lot,” Beschoor Plug notes. “We have a mission in Ramallah, a diplomatic representation, and we work together with them in order to get as many people in contact with one another, across the lines here.”If we make do with only the images we get here of, for example, Ramallah – and, as Beschoor Plug noted, we don’t really have the opportunity to get in the car and pop over there for hummus or just for a natter with the locals – we quickly arrive at the conclusion that all the Palestinian residents of the West Bank live in dire circumstances and have no time or energy for anything beyond their day-to-day existence.While that may be true for some, Ramallah also has a thriving classical music conservatory, a cinematheque, and more than a handful of hip eateries and bars.“They have a lot of [cultural] projects and they have artists, just like in every part of the world. I think art is a wonderful medium to exchange and to be able to understand others.”The same applies to bilateral relations that are not hampered by armed struggle.“That also goes for Israel and the Netherlands,” Beschoor Plug posits. “In many respects we resemble one another, but in other respects we have to learn [about] each other.” Most, presumably, would struggle to find common ground between the land of canals, tulips and reclaimed flat lands, and our own essentially arid patch at the eastern extremity of the Mediterranean Sea.But the envoy feels there are plenty of cultural, historical and political correlations between the two countries.“There are similarities in the fact we are a small country as well, surrounded by big countries, and many centuries ago we learned a way to avoid the one that dominates us and uses us against the other.“So we were trying to keep the balance between these great powers surrounding us, like England, Germany and France. We did so by engaging in trade with all these countries, and trying to be a hub. So it was necessary for all these countries to have good relations with us.”Indeed, Dutch imperialist aspirations – primarily in the 16th and 17th centuries – were very modest compared with, say, those of England or Spain. These, as Beschoor Plug intimates, were mainly based on trading interests rather than trying to grab as much territory as possible and to subjugate the respective populations.While the locals may not have been too happy even with the relatively compact Dutch presence, Beschoor Plug says it spawned a human interface which has had some positive effects.“Because of that, we got into touch with other peoples all round the world, and they came to Holland from places like Surinam and Africa and South Africa; people also fled from oppression to Holland.” The latter took in some of our very own.“For example, the Sephardic Jews from Spain and France who fled the Catholic kings came to Holland.” That brought mutual benefits – safety for the Jews and cultural upgrading for the Dutch. “As a result, we had a rather diverse population in Holland in the 17th century, and this made us rich.“Diversity, of course, creates power and knowledge, all these people working together. I see a similar diversity in Israel. Of course, Israel is built on diversity – all the people making aliya here from all over the world. You can see that it helps you, too, creating this innovative hub and economy that is far ahead of its neighbors. It all has, I think, to do with diversity and the ability to listen to others.”Those of us who get the odd invitation to a cocktail party, or some other convivial event organized by some embassy or other, may get the impression that a diplomat’s life is largely a merry round of undemanding PR-oriented activities, designed solely to fly the national flag high and proud while making the right noises in the required directions.Then again, members of the diplomatic corps, and particularly ambassadors, appear to operate in the gray area between down-and-dirty politics and the aforementioned more innocuous pastimes. That implies a delicate juggling act.“It can be, but that’s definitely not always the case,” says Plug, who has been in diplomatic service for nearly three decades, including four years as deputy ambassador to Syria and three years as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.Just prior to starting his stint here, he visited Gaza on behalf of the Dutch government to get a first-hand idea of the progress of agricultural projects there funded by the Netherlands.“Of course, there are countries in which diplomats are politicians, or the most important diplomats are politicians, like the US. Holland is not such a country. We are all career civil servants.”As such, Beschoor Plug and his fellow diplomats are trained to act as purely professional apolitical front-liners, promoting and safeguarding their country’s interests abroad come what may.“We have to represent the country, the government that is in place at that time, and it doesn’t matter whether the government is a coalition that we would vote for. Our own personal opinion is not important.” Altruism is the diplomatic order of the day.It is a two-way street. “We try to make the policies and life in the country that we serve in more understandable to folks back home. It can be on the firing line sometimes, but it is really a very comfortable bed, as a couch, to which you can invite people from your own country, and people from the country one is in, to sit down and to work together.”Beschoor Plug clearly enjoys his work, and says he knew he wanted to be a diplomat from the get go.“I studied law. That was pretty boring,” he laughs, “but it’s a good basis [for his ambassadorial role]. I took a lot of economy subjects as well, because economics is a very important field in order to understand relationships between countries. And history, of course; that’s always useful. But I think the most important thing for a diplomat is to be curious. That is what I would suggest people should have when they contemplate becoming a diplomat.”Sounds like a good trait for us all.