European moves against settlements revive Israel boycott fears
Steps by European companies and governments to restrict business with West Bank settlements are rekindling longstanding fears in Israel of a broader economic boycott over its treatment of the Palestinians.
After facing criticism from activist groups in the Netherlands, Vitens, the Dutch drinking-water company, said this week that it was cutting ties with Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, because it had business in the occupied West Bank.
Separately, UK Trade & Investment, the business promotion body, published guidance last week warning companies of the risks of doing business with Israeli settlements, including “legal and economic risks” and “potential reputational implications”. This week it also emerged that Romania had stopped sending construction workers to Israel if it does not receive a guarantee that they will not work in the West Bank.
The moves followed recently issued European Union guidelines prohibiting the awarding of EU grants, loans or prizes to Israeli entities on occupied Palestinian lands. The Palestinians have also been pressing European governments to instruct their companies not to do business in the settlements, which are illegal under international law.
The warnings come in the same week as memorial proceedings for the late South African president Nelson Mandela, which provoked debate in Israel about apartheid, past Israeli governments’ support for the white minority regime, and comparisons between apartheid and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.
While most Israelis firmly reject that comparison, commentators across the political spectrum are expressing concern that the world could be moving towards an economic boycott of the type that weakened South Africa’s economy in the final years of apartheid.
The leftwing paper Haaretz, in a page-one editorial published on Thursday, warned that Israel was coming closer to a “South Africa-style boycott”. Earlier this week Yair Lapid, finance minister, said that Israel could face “sanctions” if its peace talks with the Palestinians fail.
“I won’t elaborate here on the types of sanctions Israel could possibly face, as I don’t want to give our enemies any ideas,” Mr Lapid told business leaders at a conference on Sunday in Tel Aviv. “Suffice it to say that the results would likely be extremely destructive to the economic welfare of each and every Israeli citizen.”
A senior Israeli official told the Financial Times this week that the government was planning for various scenarios in which it faced greater economic and diplomatic isolation. Israel is expanding its economic ties with China, India and Latin American countries as political tensions rise with the EU, its biggest trading partner.
The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which favours isolating Israel economically until it ends the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, has welcomed the recent moves.
“European governments are now responding to public opinion and Israel’s intransigence by taking steps to limit the ways in which European businesses and public funds are supporting the continued existence and expansion of illegal Israeli settlements,” said Michael Deas, a co-ordinator in Europe for the Palestinian BDS National Committee.
The EU says it opposes a boycott of Israel, but that its companies and funding institutions need to obey international law, which does not recognise the occupied Palestinian lands as part of its territory.
Israel’s government says that the EU’s stricter rules are making the chances of a peace agreement from talks now under way less likely by hardening the
Palestinians’ stance on future borders of their state along 1967 lines.
An Israeli foreign ministry spokesman pointed out that Mekorot, the Israeli company dropped by Vitens, was involved in a large water deal with the Palestinians and Jordan agreed this week. Vitens did not return calls requesting comment.
Calls to isolate Israel are of concern to the US, its main ally, too. In a speech last weekend in Washington John Kerry, US secretary of state, warned of the “unjust but also inexorable campaign to delegitimise Israel in the international community”.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the policy of the BNC