Copyright 2003 The International Herald Tribune |

Gretta Duisenberg's Mideast tour causes a stir
Gregory Crouch The New York Times
Friday, January 10, 2003
NIJMEGEN, the Netherlands Here and abroad, some Palestinians treat Gretta Duisenberg like a queen. Yasser Arafat refers to Duisenberg as Her Excellency.

She is not a queen and her husband, Wim Duisenberg, is not a king or a prince. He is president of the European Central Bank and the political activism of his wife for Palestinian causes has created a royal problem for him and for their country, the Netherlands.

Duisenberg, 60, and her husband were taken to task this week by the center-right coalition government after it was learned that she used a Dutch diplomatic passport to enter Israel and the West Bank on a tour that included a meeting on Wednesday with Arafat.

The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs said diplomatic passports issued to civil servants and their spouses should be used only on official business. One Dutch politician has called on the government to rescind the wife's diplomatic privileges. Asked to comment, she dismissed the suggestion as "ludicrous" nitpicking.

The passport flap is just the latest episode in Duisenberg's highly publicized, pro-Palestinian campaign as chairwoman of a private Dutch group called Stop the Occupation.

Besides anonymous death threats aimed at the couple and accusations of anti-Semitism made against her, Duisenberg's efforts have raised questions about whether she is compromising her husband's political neutrality.

"It happens to be that I'm the wife of Mr. Duisenberg and I have been for 17 years," she said. "Why should I pretend to be someone else? Should I suddenly change my name?"

Duisenberg has steadfastly defended his wife's right to her own opinion, including this week in an e-mail message to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in reference to the passport fracas. "I stand 100 percent behind her," he wrote. Manfred Koerber, a spokesman at the European Central Bank, said the phrase should not be misconstrued as an endorsement of the wife's politics. Duisenberg has neither advocated nor condoned his wife's stances, Koerber said.

"I am not her property," Duisenberg said in a television interview, "and she is not my property."

His wife first drew attention last April after she draped a Palestinian flag over a balcony outside the couple's Amsterdam home. "That came straight from my heart because I wanted to show what my feelings were," she said. That display in turn led to a speech at a rally and petitions along with contributions to a pro-Palestinian Web site.

Some Jewish groups were outraged several months ago after a radio interview she gave. The reporter asked her how many signatures she intended to collect for a pro-Palestinian petition. She paused, laughed and then responded, "Six million?"

Some saw this a reference to Jewish Holocaust victims and she was taken to court, accused of making an anti-Semitic remark. The Dutch public prosecutor's office refused last month to take on the case.

Duisenberg said Wednesday that she and her associates had already collected 6,000 signatures when the reporter asked her how many more she would like to get.

"The 6,000 were still in my head and I said, 'Well, six million.' We laughed because it was a ridiculous amount of signatures," she said.

"I'm not an anti-Semite," she added. "If I were that, I'd be against Jews in general and I'm not.

"I'm against Sharon and what his government is doing," she added, referring to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel. "That's all."

Her opinions have provoked strong reactions in some quarters: a Dutch television personality draped an Israeli flag the size of a football field over the couple's home.

This week, Duisenberg generated controversy again when a few comments she made were perceived by some as supporting Palestinian suicide bombers, a charge she denied. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende called her comments a completely false signal, coming as they did so quickly after another suicide bombing attack. But in her meeting with Arafat on Wednesday, Duisenberg said she had been the first to broach the subject of suicide bombers. "I asked him," she said, "how he felt about suicide bombings. I condemned them and so did he.

"We want peace for both countries," she added, referring to Israel and a possible future Palestinian state.

Copyright 2003 The International Herald Tribune